In Fresno, California, an organization has been breaking down the barriers veterans face each and every day in their adjustment back to daily life. Named “The National Role Model for Inclusion” by the U.S. Department of Education, Break the Barriers, Inc., a non-profit organization, has been educating the community, country and world about the importance of recognizing the unique abilities we each possess. “Disabled” is a word you will never hear used by anyone from Break the Barriers. The organization prides itself on being an ability center, which celebrates individuals’ differences, accomplishments and triumphs.
As Board of Directors president Mike Hernandez says, “Why must these people be labeled as disabled veterans? They are veterans, and that is what we refer to them as.” This organization provides more than 500 veterans a place to go, twice a week, where they are seen for more than their lost limbs, lost sight, or lost hope. The veterans are given opportunities to shoot Olympic-style air rifle and archery, both recreationally and competitively.
For 35 years, the program has been expanding its reach to include as many people as possible. Over the past three years, Break the Barriers has significantly expanded their veteran air rifle, archery, and biathlon rifle programs with the support of grants from The NRA Foundation. Hernandez noted how easy The NRA Foundation made the grant process. “Everything is clear cut, and the website contains the helpful information you need. Most other places are many times more complicated than The NRA Foundation in the follow-up aspect of the grant process.”
100% of the grant Break the Barriers received from The NRA Foundation was used for veteran program supplies. Every penny was used to purchase rifles, some archery equipment, and their special green pellets. “We had to devise a new pellet drop stop because our pellets are special lead-free green pellets made to comply with California laws for indoor shooting,” Hernandez explained. Though expensive, the equipment and special ammunition are priceless when you hear veterans say this program helped them overcome their PTSD and alleviate depression. Really, how do you put a price tag on that?
This program gives veterans tools to integrate back into daily life with their families and communities. The shooting programs are open to all veterans regardless of ability, race, gender, or financial situation. In fact, the programs are free to anyone who has, or is currently serving in our armed forces, thanks to NRA Foundation grant funds by Friends of NRA. Hernandez is quick to give credit to supporters, “The Friends of NRA grant funds were used exclusively to purchase top of the line equipment, which has helped the competitive shooters bring home gold medals.”
More valuable than any medals though, Hernandez often hears, “Your shooting program gave me the confidence I didn’t think I had anymore.” As veterans enter the facility, they see children from Break the Barriers’ other 27 programs. These children may be in wheelchairs, have missing limbs, or vision loss, just like the veterans; however, the veterans also see these same children going to school, playing sports, and winning competitions. They tell Hernandez all the time, “When we go in through your doors and we see kids and adults who have difficulties like us, it gives us hope that we are going to be okay and we will be able to go on.”
Hernandez made it an important point to express the necessity of helping veterans transition back into society and their family lives. “Many live in isolation. We created this program to be inclusive. We can’t segregate and isolate them, because even by providing one-on-one lessons based on differing abilities would still classify them by their impairments,” he explains. “The program’s reach goes far beyond the shooting sports themselves. Our shooting sports are simply a tool we use to help people, who then regain purpose to go out and help other members of the community.”
Funding for archery and air rifle equipment from The NRA Foundation helps Break the Barriers “educate everyone who walks through their doors, even those who may not have had a previous interest in the shooting sports.” Participants may have a wrong impression, or no impression, of the great benefits that the shooting sports can provide. These shooting programs help to remedy that among the uninitiated who often exclaim, “Wow, this really is safe!” after seeing the Break the Barriers shooting range for the first time.
The NRA Foundation grant was an incredible opportunity for this growing program to expand and touch more lives. “We have a waiting list because we can’t get enough equipment. The waitlist was significantly shortened because of supplies the grant allowed us to obtain,” said Hernandez. Grants are all about partnership. The partnership between Break the Barriers, The NRA Foundation, and our veterans is three years old and growing strong. The organizations have put their shared values to work in order to better the lives of the American heroes who risked it all for our freedom.
Local Friends of NRA chairman, Harry, and NRA Field Representative, Sheila Boer, clearly see the value and importance of the work of Break the Barriers and people like Mike Hernandez. The NRA Foundation and it’s Friends of NRA program are proud to support such efforts.