At a luncheon to honor outstanding military spouses from all service branches, Marine wife Karen Guenther was introduced by Bonnie Amos, the first lady of the Marine Corps.
Guenther’s family was at a nearby table. Her husband sat tall and straight in his uniform as the wife of the Marine Corps Commandant described the Semper Fi Fund, a nonprofit Guenther started in 2003 to meet the needs of those returning injured from war.
When it was Guenther’s turn to speak, her teenage daughter quietly wiped away tears as her mother talked about how this same child had gone from a toddler to a young lady, growing up alongside the injured servicemembers served by her mom and a cadre of dedicated volunteers.
Amos later described Guenther to me as “the most loving, caring person I have ever met.”
I wanted to talk to that person, one who in ten years turned a $500 donation into a charity that raised more than $106 million, giving most of it back to wounded warriors through programs that serve them in various ways. Guenther is a busy woman, but I caught up with her by phone to ask how she did it.
“We started very small and organic and helped those who were right in front of us,” Guenther said. “It just kept growing and word just kept spreading about what we were doing,” she recalled of the seminal days of her organization at Camp Pendleton, Calif., where the Guenthers were stationed in 2003.
An intensive care nurse working at two military hospitals in San Diego, Guenther was among the first to see the impact of the war on military families.
“I was there when the first medevacs landed with the wounded. I saw what the families were going through,” she said. Those families were the impetus for the effort that became the Semper Fi Fund.
With no experience in creating a non-profit organization, Karen joked that she learned by reading “Nonprofits for Dummies.”
“ICU nurses think they can do anything. We don’t know the word ‘no,’ I thought, okay, I can figure this out.”
From the outset, the fund helped wounded Marines and sailors and their families and continues to serve them with programs that help pay for everything from adaptive housing and vehicles, to service dogs, education and career transition assistance and more. Team Semper Fi, which Guenther said is “near and dear” to her heart, provides adaptive equipment and training for wounded Marines to participate in sports, both recreational and competitive.
Another Semper Fi Fund program, America’s Fund, serves all branches of service. Currently, that fund is focused on helping the families of hospitalized servicemembers with expenses associated with travel and lost income due to an injury. The Semper Fi website says the goal is to expand the services of America’s Fund to match those offered to Marines.
The Semper Fi Fund began as an all-volunteer start up, but soon Karen said she and her team realized the organization would have to grow.
“Everyone took leave from their jobs to get this off the ground. When we realized this would be a long-term effort, we realized we had to have staff,” Karen said. “We thought it was going to be over when they returned after that first deployment. Now here we are so many years later still doing it, but what a blessing it’s been.”
Much of the fund’s activities are still powered by volunteers, many of them military spouses and families, and fundraising from grassroots efforts like golf tournaments, bike races and bake sales.
With so many avenues of service, I asked Guenther about the difficulty of managing multiple programs. She said programs are the easy part. Fundraising is the challenge.
“People are amazed at our numbers, and so they think we have all this money in the bank, but we don’t because we give it out,” she said. “The needs are so great right now. We spent a million and a half (dollars) last month, and that’s a typical month these days, so it takes a lot to keep that going.”
Another challenge is keeping the issue of returning servicemembers in the public eye when people are ready to move on.
“We need to keep it fresh in everyone’s mind, because these 20-year-olds are still missing three limbs or four limbs or have traumatic brain injury,” she said. “They’re going to have this for the rest of their lives. The challenge for us is to keep the passion and the commitment up to help us provide the best quality of life that they can have.”
Bonnie Amos said Karen’s perseverance is a testimony to what military spouses can do.
“What Karen Guenther has accomplished in the past ten years is truly unimaginable,” she said. “What does this say about the power of our spouses? That they are limitless; that there are no boundaries or impediments; that if one can dream it, it can be conceived.”
Karen agrees about the power of military spouses.
“Our success is the military spouses,” she said “Our volunteers and staff are mostly spouses and wounded service members. “I’ve just been surrounded by amazing people.”
For more information, see the Semper Fi Fund website at semperfifund.org.