Crystal Lake veterans agency sees hope in outdoor recreation

Fishing trips, other recreation help veterans connect

Outdoor recreation, like this fishing trip, helps veterans connect with other veterans, said program directory Ryan Jacobsen.

Ryan Jacobsen, veterans outdoor program manager at Veterans Path to Hope, said he’s seen an Army veteran join a few of the agency’s fishing trips, starting out as “standoffish and skittish” about joining the other men.

However, after three or four trips, “he started connecting away from the trips with veterans who were on the trip,” Jacobsen said. “He said he would like to be more involved and start planning [future trips]. That is when you know you succeeded. He got so much out of it [that] he wants to be on the other side and part of the process.”

Since 1996, the Crystal Lake-based Veterans Path to Hope has offered aid to struggling veterans, including through peer therapy, housing, employment, food and other necessities.

“We are there for the veterans who are not eligible for care and services the [Veterans Benefits Administration provides],” Executive Director Laura Franz said.

The outdoor recreation program is a newer offering that Jacobsen started after he came on board in 2018.

Jacobsen said he was so excited about what he saw happening with veterans on these fishing trips that he picked up a four-year degree in recreation therapy from Aurora University to better understand how the outdoor programs can aid clients. Jacobsen graduated from the program in May.

“Therapeutic recreation became the premise of the whole program. It gives veterans something to do, something therapeutic,” he said. “As an alternative therapy, it has the same effect as counseling, medications and stuff like that.”

Recreational therapy has included fishing trips to Canada, ice fishing trips, hiking excursions, kayaking and even yoga, Franz said.

It’s on these excursions that Jacobsen said he sees veterans begin to break down walls and talk about their experiences.

“When we get them together, they develop the rapport and the camaraderie,” he said. “They [somewhat] have their guard down ... that propels them into dialogue and connection.”

The first fishing trip to Ontario, Canada, came about when a non-veteran neighbor of Jacobsen asked whether he could help make it happen. That was in 2022 with five guys. In July, they were able to take nine veterans, he said.

To save money and get more veterans involved, next year he plans to drive to Canada with upward of a dozen men instead of flying them up, Jacobsen said.

There also is some guesswork involved in planning the trips, such as ensuring the group of veterans will get along with each other.

“Some of the stuff is really trial and error,” Jacobsen said. “I like that part of it, and the aspect of you can try different stuff.

“You take into account mental health and physical barriers. Can they get in and out of a boat? Can they hang out for a week with other veterans?”

Once the men start making connections, it lasts beyond the weeklong trip.

“What sticks out to me is the camaraderie. You take veterans that don’t know each other and roll the dice that all get along, Jacobsen said. “I know it is a successful trip when I see their progression and them exchanging numbers, talking about their families.”

When veterans can connect with other veterans and veterans groups, “they are less likely to commit suicide or have substance abuse issues,” he said.

“That is the big thing I see from my trips,” Jacobsen said. “That is the part that chokes me up and drives me to do more.”

Not all of the trips are to Canada.

“We have partnerships with resorts all over, in Wisconsin and Michigan,” to offer weekend events, Franz said.

She knows of another specific group of veterans who went on a fishing trip together that became so close that they all flew out to support one of the men when he graduated from college.

“After just a three- or five-day thing, the connections are that strong that they are willing to do something like that,” Franz said.

Veterans Path to Hope wants to continue to build the program.

“As a not-for-profit, it is always the almighty dollar – donations, sponsorships and grants,” Jacobsen said. “Our goal is to get grant support for the outdoors program and support staff – however many more veterans I can afford to serve.”

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