When a soldier dies, many times, a child is left behind. Angels of America’s Fallen (AoAF) was formed to support these children at the critical juncture when a parent is lost. Travis Wright, MS ‘10 and Chairman of the Board of AoAF, describes the organization’s mission as one that provides personal development and mentorship to the children of America’s fallen military and first responders.
Sadly, grieving children often gravitate toward unhealthy ways of relieving the pain: withdrawing from family and friends; losing interest in school and turning to harmful and illegal behaviors. The idea behind the AoAF is to provide better choices for these children by tapping in to each child’s innate passion and cultivating it, starting when the child is young and supporting him or her until age 18.
For one child, it could be karate lessons. For another, it might be tuition for gymnastics camp. Of course, most children lose interest in one activity and move on to the next. The AoAF recognizes that as a good thing. For a single child, they may fund a variety of activities over the course of that child’s growing up years.
Wright recalls the day when the idea for AoAF was born. He and his former co-worker, Joe Lewis, were paying their respects at Arlington Cemetery. According to Wright, they were “struck by the number of young children visiting the cemetery, the pictures drawn in crayon placed next to graves and the stuffed animals propped neatly up against the markers.“ Both men had lost friends over the course of their military careers, and many of these fallen men and women had children. Reflecting upon the plight of these innocent victims, Lewis and Wright found themselves asking: What happens to the little ones a few years after the loss of their loved one?
It was at that moment in Arlington Cemetery when the idea for the AoAF took seed. Lewis, near retirement in his military career, decided to move forward with the project in 2012, asking Wright to serve as Chairman of the Board.
Recently retired from the military and now working for a defense contractor in the DC area, Wright’s role at AoAF is to keep a pulse on the organization’s planned events, to help with the donor strategy and to get regular updates on the kids. “The most rewarding part is hearing the stories about our kids and the impact our program has on them,” says Wright. “They have lost a most important mentor, and while we cannot replace the parent, we can provide a healthy activity that will allow the kids to grow.”
One such story is that of a young girl who witnessed her father take his own life. The child was four years of age at the time of her father’s death. As a result of the tragedy, the little girl stopped walking and talking. After receiving funds from AoAF, the child’s mother was able to enroll her daughter in dance lessons. According to Wright, “The girl’s transformation has been nothing short of amazing, and she recently sent us a video of her dance recital to say thank you.”
When the tiny dancer was in crisis, the AoAF stepped in.
Wright appreciates the value of helping military families. Toward the end of his studies at GW, the university adopted the Yellow Ribbon program, which covered costs that the GI Bill did not. “I’m thankful for the focus that GW places on our veterans,” says Wright. “Many of the skills and tools I learned at GW translate directly to what we were trying to accomplish at AoAF. The best way I can pay it forward is through Angels of America’s Fallen.”
And pay it forward he does. Because of his efforts and those of the dedicated team at AoAF, many children whose parents have died in service to our country are receiving a helping hand at the time they need it most.
In September of 2014, AoAF was awarded a grant through the Newman’s Own Award. The award ceremony took place at the Pentagon and was sponsored by Military Times, Newman’s Own and the Fisher House Foundation. Chosen from 288 applicants, AoAF was one of 5 winners.
“Our director and founder, Joe Lewis, called me up to tell me that he had some exciting news that I couldn’t share with anyone,” says Wright, recalling the day he learned of the award. “I was thrilled at the prospect of not only what the grant would provide but also the added focus on our cause. We have a long waiting list for our services and are desperately trying to secure more funding.”
Because the organization makes a long-term commitment to each family, the need for funding grows each year. Thanks to the Newman’s Own Award, AoAF was able to move a large group off the waiting list. Wright notes, “We are serving 200 kids in 29 states which is awesome, but we have over 150 still on our list.”
The AoAF is a relatively young organization, but its outreach has already touched many lives. Clearly, helping each child fuels a desire to help even more. And as a result of the heartfelt commitment of ‘angels’ like Travis Wright, the children of America’s next fallen heroes will have someone watching over them, too.