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An Inside Look at the Gary Sinise Foundation Central Florida Chapter

August 11th, 2020

This month, the Gary Sinise Foundation marks a historic milestone in its near decade-long service supporting America's heroes and their loved ones with the debut of the Central Florida Chapter. Home to more than 1.5 million veterans, the third highest in the nation, the area will see a localized extension of the Foundation's mission and programmatic offerings.

The Central Florida Chapter — the first among future chapters strategically located in regions with a sizeable presence of veterans, service members, and first responders —  will focus its efforts on serving the present and future needs of service members, veterans, first responders, their families, and those in need. 

Since its founding in June 2011, the Gary Sinise Foundation has long maintained a presence in the state of Florida.

The footprint of programmatic support includes Snowball Express held at Walt Disney World Resort, the construction of several R.I.S.E. mortgage-free specially adapted smart homes, and First Responders grants distributed to fire and police departments. Complimentary meals continue to be provided to service members at military installations, and more recently to healthcare workers at hospitals statewide through Serving Heroes. 

The Foundation also supports Florida’s veterans, service members, and Gold Star families with financial aid and other resources through its Relief and Resiliency program. 

In the lead up to the debut of the Central Florida Chapter on August 15, we turned to Ray Sands, Director of Chapter Development, and Karen Connors, Chapter President of the Central Florida Chapter, to answer a few questions about this next phase of community service and charitable support from the Gary Sinise Foundation.

You both have long been involved in military and veteran support service organizations in Central Florida. Karen, tell us how those years of experience shaped your decision to join the board of directors of the Central Florida Chapter? And Ray, as Director of Chapter Development, what are you most looking forward to after the August 15 debut?

Karen: ​I have been around the military my whole life. I was born in Heidelberg, Germany, and grew up on military bases. I considered all my friends and neighbors as my “Army family.” We all had something special in common – we were all serving in one way or another. When I graduated from college, my first job was in military simulation. I was in my comfort zone around the military men and women. 

When my job brought me to Central Florida, I would see someone in uniform or with a military hat and wonder where their Army family is – where is their support system like our family had for so many years? It was then my husband and I decided to find out where the military veteran support organizations were in our community. This led to serving great organizations like the Association of the US Army, the Mayor’s Veterans Advisory Councils, Mission United, Heroes Commons, and Home At Last (projects to build mortgage-free homes for veterans), and many more. Aligning myself with such a well-respected and beloved human being as Gary Sinise and his Foundation allows me to continue my mission of supporting those in need in my community.

Ray: ​As a native Floridian and a 30-year resident of Central Florida, I’m very excited as the Director of Chapter Development to be able to launch the first Gary Sinise Foundation Chapter in my home community.  Our Chapters will operate to serve the needs of our veterans, first responders, their families, and those in need.  By enlisting the help from local volunteers, we will offer citizens, diverse and entertaining opportunities to assist fellow neighbors in their own city.  

As we expand the awareness of our programmatic pillars that define the mission of the Gary Sinise Foundation, we will attract more folks who want to get involved and support our causes.  Then, a broader involvement by these dedicated volunteers will lead to greater activity, helping to expand our impact even further, not just in Central Florida, but throughout many regions in the country.

Give us a sense of the expertise of the Chapter’s advisory council. How important was it to include a diversity of backgrounds and public service experience?

Karen: ​I felt the moral responsibility to represent each facet of the Foundation as well as have people who represent the diverse demographic in Central Florida.  Only then, can we be successful at expanding the brand and the mission of the Gary Sinise Foundation. Their expertise and experience have already proven invaluable leading up to the launch. 

When we had our Advisory Council Meet and Greet, I shared Gary’s mantra – “always do a little more.” I asked each one to give a brief introduction of themselves and their background, then to share why they wanted to be on the Advisory Council. They shared stories about family members in the uniform, some who are no longer with us. They shared stories about why they are passionate and excited to be a part of this great organization.  And those stories were powerful. These folks have served in many capacities, but because of their passion, they are willing to do a little more.

Ray: The Central Florida Chapter Advisory Council includes retired general officers and staff officers from different branches of the military, defense industry executives, two Gold Star families, an Orange County Sheriff, Presidents of local and national military veteran support service organizations, and a Director of Philanthropy.

Through this diversity, our advisors will act as invaluable assets to help increase the awareness of the foundation’s mission, broaden our local donor base and assist in identifying appropriate corporate sponsors for the chapter, which will be critical for the long-term growth and sustainability of each chapter. 

What are the immediate and long-term priorities of the Chapter? How will the Chapter accomplish them?

Ray: ​The immediate priority of the Central Florida Chapter is to increase awareness of the mission of the Gary Sinise Foundation throughout the Central Florida community.  We will do this by supporting events that educate, entertain, inspire, strengthen, and build communities. We will also recruit local talent of dedicated volunteers who wish to support unique events we will create, specific to our community that will carry forward our foundation’s mission and expand and broaden our impact. This is especially important now as we reach out to many more veterans and first responders that have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

More people need our help now more than ever, and this grassroots approach at the local level can offer a perfect vehicle to reach out to those in our local communities that are suffering. Our long-term priority for the chapter is to grow a chapter that will sustain itself for many years to come to offer our services to those we are always seeking to help.

What needs related to service members, veterans, first responders, and their families have the Chapter identified? How will the Chapter address them?

Karen: With two Gold Star family members on the Advisory Council, we have a lot of passion for those families.  As you know, Snowball Express at Disney is an annual event bringing together the families of fallen military for a five-day experience providing fun and beneficial resources in a stress-free environment.  This really helps with the grieving process, but what about the other 360 days a year?  We sense the importance of hosting community-based Snowball events and have already reached out to venues who could support this effort.  

Additionally, a RISE home is being built next year in the Villages, and we have already begun to foster a relationship with that veteran-rich community.  They know the chapter is coming and they are very excited!  We also sense a need for mental health resources, so we have two Advisory Council members who serve on the board of a local charity whose mission is to “heal the invisible wounds of war.”  

We also have first responders on our Board and Advisory Council, and they will be assisting in identifying needs in their organizations. We are also having meetings with potential donors to fund our own chapter initiatives.

Ray: ​With this health pandemic continuing to spread across our nation, many more veterans have lost their jobs and are struggling to meet their basic needs and obligations. Currently, there are more homeless veterans in the country than ever before, with female veterans now comprising the majority. Chapters will be there to support these needs and through our relief and resiliency programs by continuing to offer these families financial and moral support through these tough, challenging times. 

Our Community and Education pillar will also adapt to the growing needs of our older veterans and Snowball families as we continue to create engaging virtual educational programs, supporting mental health, and boosting morale. All of these programs are centered around positive mental health with activities designed always to give hope, build healthy mindsets, and promote a successful future.

Confirmed cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in Central Florida. How is the Chapter adapting its mission to the present circumstances? What ways will the Chapter facilitate its services in light of the coronavirus?

Ray: The COVID-19 worldwide pandemic is something nobody could have ever imagined, and the world is truly struggling to get through it. Developing chapters across the country as a force multiplier to expand the awareness of our mission was a great idea before this crisis. Now, it has become more important than ever. There are countless more defenders, veterans, first responders and frontline medical workers who are suffering and risking their lives and their futures 24/7 so that we can remain healthy and make it through this crisis. 

All of these American heroes need us now more than ever. Once it is safe to resume more normal operations, our chapters offer leaders and volunteers to support the GSF national events as well as self-generated local events utilizing resources in our local communities to serve those in need.


Written by Brandon Black