Jeff Loeffler, a restaurant owner from Saint Marys, Pa., departed Towanda last week to continue his Kayak for Heroes journey down the Susquehanna River to raise money and awareness for post traumatic stress disorder and veteran suicide with the organization, Stop Soldier Suicide.
The 12-day, 444-mile trip began May 1 in Cooperstown and will come to an end in the Chesapeake Bay, with a goal of raising $11,100 through $25 a mile sponsorships. He’s raised around $4,000 to date despite challenges from COVID-19 hindering the initial round of fundraising he planned to do through March and April around his hometown.
“I know for myself, our restaurant has lost a ton of money in the last month-and-a-half,” he said. “I wasn’t about to go out in a situation like that and ask people to give me money, but I was still going to do the run for the awareness aspect of it.”
The pandemic has also interrupted Loeffler’s plans to stop at local businesses along the way as part of an effort to promote different tourist attractions on social media.
“There’s a lot of opportunity for tourism here,” Loeffler said about Towanda. “You can have a great vacation on a low budget, coming up here, camping out, and seeing the beauty that the area has to offer.”
Loeffler was drawn to the cause through a respect for the military and his own personal experience with an employee he fostered after finding out he was homeless. It wasn’t until a year later that Loeffler discovered this employee was dealing with PTSD, stemming from a rough childhood. The employee’s girlfriend, who ended up living at Loeffler’s house and giving birth to twins, also experienced similar issues due to her past.
“Dealing with that, it was an eye-opening experience to see how mental illness works and how it affects the entire family structure,” he explained. “You don’t realize it, but there are a couple of things with mental illness that are different than other illness. First, there is a false sense of shame with it, especially if you are a battle-hardened veteran. You don’t want to share your weaknesses or things that are bothering you.”
“When you care about somebody and they’re hurting, whether it’s physical pain or emotional pain, if you can’t help them or you are struggling with finding a way to make them better, it also affects you, which in turn affects the whole family,” Loeffler continued. “That’s one of the main reasons why I like Stop Soldier Suicide, because there are 40-some thousand different organizations out there that are trying to help veterans, but what these guys do is try to help the whole family. They help the spouses. They help the children. They help the parents – anyone that could be affected … which helps the veteran overcome their own issues.”
Those calling Stop Soldier Suicide are assigned a caseworker, who continues working with the client to make sure the help they are receiving is working over the course of multiple years.
“They really do take an individualized approach with every person who calls in and they help almost 1,000 veterans a year,” Loeffler explained. “They’re actually trying to solve the problem at its core.”
According to the latest information from the U.S. Veterans Administration, an average of 16.8 U.S. veterans committed suicide each day in 2017.
Loeffler said even if he can inform one person about the Stop Soldier Suicide program through the trip, it would have been a success.
“It’s been an exciting trip so far, Loeffler said. “It’s been a scramble, but we’re getting it done.”
Those looking for more information or who want to follow Loeffler’s journey can visit his Facebook page, the kayakforheroes Instagram page, Stop Soldier Suicide on Facebook and Twitter, or www.stopsoldiersuicide.org.