Recent headlines featuring the Wounded Warrior Project were rife with talk of allegations and investigations regarding lavish spending and money misuse. However, the organization at Fairfield is thriving with one simple purpose in mind: to honor and serve veterans.
Focused on aiding injured servicemen and women in the United States, the WWP seeks to rehabilitate veterans socially, mentally, physically and financially. However, the national organization came under intense scrutiny for donating only 60 percent of their overall budget to veteran aid, according to Charity Navigator, America’s largest independent charity evaluator.
In January, CBS investigated the alleged misuse of the funds by the nation’s most recognized veterans’ charity. According to CBS, the WWP allocated $26 million in 2014 to luxurious travel accommodations and conferences for national board executives.
When the story surfaced, many members of the WWP’s Fairfield chapter said that the allegations were upsetting to hear.
“It has surfaced that these [allegations] have some truth to them and it’s hard to see,” said Robert Fredette ‘18, marketing co-chair. “But, the WWP is taking the correct steps to get the organization back in the right direction.”
Junior Stephen Dierks, founder and president of Fairfield’s chapter, said that his communication with the national organization was strong from the beginning of the investigations.
“I have spoken to the Wounded Warrior Project multiple times to learn more about the situation and to ensure that every dollar we raise directly helps wounded veterans,” he stated.
The club raised $5,000 last year, according to Dierks. This year, they’ve added $200 to their total funds raised in the first month of the semester. Of this $5,200, 93.9 percent — or $4,885 — was donated directly to the WWP for veteran aid. The other 6.1 percent was used for the purchase of t-shirts, which were sold to members of the community. Fredette said that all other expenses for the Fairfield club are covered by a $1,000 budget allotted to them by the University’s Council of Student Organizations.
As news reports emerged, the national organization fired its top two executives and conducted a review of its financial statements from the 2013-2014 fiscal year. In a statement, the WWP said that it would implement “enhanced measures” to ensure improper money allocation and staff policies were rectified.
However, the charity contested that some of the points raised in media reports were inaccurate, namely the amount spent on programs for veterans. In their release, the WWP stated that 80.6 percent — not 60 percent — of their budget was devoted to donations.
Despite the news, the Fairfield contingent forged ahead in its efforts to make a difference.
Inspired by the charity’s mission, Dierks founded the Fairfield chapter in the spring of 2015. As it turns out, many others shared his inspiration.
In its inaugural year, Fairfield’s chapter amassed 211 members, making it one of the largest clubs on campus. Since the activities fair at the beginning of September, the group has added 83 new students, bringing its membership up to 294. These numbers haven’t surprised Jeremy Kaler, Associate Director of the Office of Student Engagement, who said clubs like the WWP are reflective of the University’s Jesuit identity.
“Service organizations [like the Wounded Warrior Project] serve as the backbone of our campus community,” said Kaler. “The creation of the Wounded Warrior Project chapter is just another example of what makes Fairfield, Fairfield.”
Many students who joined the Fairfield group said that they have a personal connection to the organization’s mission, making their work all the more significant.
“I have grandparents that were veterans, so that means a lot to me,” said Amanda Daniel ‘18, marketing co-chair of the club. “Being a part of something that helps them is very rewarding.”
“Everyone has a personal tie to the military,” said Fredette. “My father was a veteran … he loved his country and he loved doing what he did. There are a lot of people who have similar stories to this that drive this cause.”
Club officials said that student engagement was the key to their success. In its first year, the club sponsored several programs that produced sizeable turnouts from the campus community, including events ranging from “Dunk a DPS Officer” to a Veterans’ Day lecture series.
“The student involvement in the club and at events has been through the roof and I think it’s because our mission is so important,” said Fredette.
However, some students thought that the chapter could be doing more to gain exposure on campus.
“I think that if more students knew about the goals and mission of the club, it could have a bigger member turnout and impact on campus, and for veterans,” said Emily Thomas ‘19.
“I think they’ve done a terrible job at advertising,” said Robert McGrew ‘18. “I don’t think enough people are going to the events to raise money. I feel like they’re not getting back the money that they put into it.”
Other students said they did not know much about the organization at all.
“Honestly, I haven’t heard much about the club,” said Jack Crowley ‘18. “I know it’s a good cause, but I just haven’t heard or seen much.”
Freshman Mike Kabai echoed these same sentiments. “I don’t know a single thing about [WWP]. I don’t even know what it is,” he said.
Fredette said that the group is going to work “harder than last year” to promote the cause. “Last year, it was about getting our name out to the public. Now it’s about solidifying a positive reputation in the Fairfield community.”
The club hosted its biggest fundraiser to date, “Grit ‘n Wit,” last semester. Dierks said that the event raised $2,500 for the charity. In addition, the club received a Fairfield University Student Association award for their efforts.
The race, which was open to the University and town community, “was a great way to show how the WWP’s mission is all-encompassing,” according to Fredette. “We all have the same goal of helping out our veterans.”