A Colorado-based nonprofit was able to open its first group home for homeless veterans on Sunday, thanks to the efforts of a high school student from the other side of the country who raised tens of thousands of dollars for the cause by running a marathon.
Michael Ferrara doesn't back down from a challenge.
So last year when the 17-year-old high school student from New Jersey found out about a 22 push-ups for 22 days challenge on social media to raise awareness for veteran suicides, he was in. The challenge was issued by Houses for Warriors, a Colorado-based nonprofit that seeks to improve the quality of life for homeless and injured veterans through housing and housing resources.
As Ferrara and his father Raymond, 50, learned more about Houses for Warriors and its cause, doing push-ups on social media didn't seem like doing enough. The Ferrara family has a strong military background. Both of Ferrara's grandfathers served, one in the Navy and the other in the Army, and his uncle Anthony Ferrara is a Marine veteran.
Ferrara aspires to follow in his family's tradition by studying mechanical engineering at the U.S. Air Force Academy, or another military school. He cares deeply about veterans issues and serves as the president of Hunterdon Central Regional High School's Student Soldier Support Club, volunteering his time to run supply drives to support troops overseas, and also to visit with homeless veterans.
"Our veterans and active military are real live heroes, each and everyone of them. After realizing that the people who fought for our country are living on the streets, I looked for even more ways to help," Ferrara told TheBlaze.
"I thought it was absolutely terrible that there are people that served our country and our home on the streets, unable to enjoy the freedoms that they fought for."
Most people might donate a small amount of money to an organization that supports a cause they care about. Ferrara immediately contacted Houses for Warriors CEO Andrew Canales and asked how he could get involved.
"We got on Zoom and they became our first ambassadors for the organization," Canales told TheBlaze.
He explained to Ferrara and his father that the most pressing need for the organization was fundraising. Houses for Warriors had great ambitions to open houses where homeless veterans could get off the streets and find some stability to turn their lives around.
So Ferrara had an idea. He could combine his passion for serving veterans with his determination to challenge himself and push his body to its absolute limits.
Running for a cause
Michael Ferrara is an athlete. He's participated in martial arts since he was 3 years old, earning his first black belt in Taekwondo at age 10.
"From three years old, he was a hundred percent. It's just always been about discipline," Raymond Ferrara said. He described how his son has always pushed himself, always taken on new challenges, always persevered to conquer his next goal.
In his freshman year of high school, Ferrara says he began running to improve his cardio for Jiu-Jitsu. At first he would run about 2.5 miles in a loop around his neighborhood.
"The most I had ever run was 5 miles," he said. "One day on social media, I discovered David Goggins."
Goggins, a retired Navy SEAL, is an accomplished endurance athlete and motivational speaker who has competed in over 60 ultra-marathons, triathlons, and ultra-triathlons, overcoming asthma, obesity, and a congenital heart defect to do so.
"I learned about his story and realized that I can push myself way beyond what I ever thought my limits were," said Ferrara. "So, one day I randomly went out and ran 10 miles."
Running that distance hurt, but the pain was a challenge. So the next weekend, he ran 15 miles.
"In a span of two weeks I went from running five miles to 15 miles," Ferrara said. "I thought to myself, 'if I was able to increase my distance by 10 miles in just two weeks out of pure determination, how far could I run if I followed a plan and dedicated myself?"
So he started a 16-week training program that began with running 24 miles per week and culminated in running 45 miles weekly, totaling 486 miles. By November of his sophomore year, Ferrara completed the 26.2 mile Philadelphia Marathon. And after that he ran a 31 mile ultra-marathon with 4,000 feet elevation gain.
"The sense of accomplishment I feel when crossing the finish line in a race is a sensation like no other. I run because it makes me appreciate the fact that I live in a free country, and simply put, able to run free," he said.
Ferrara discovered Houses for Warriors as he was training for the 45th annual Marine Corps Marathon in October. He thought that dedicating the marathon run to charity would be a great opportunity for people to find out about the work they were doing and support homeless veterans.
An online fundraiser Ferrara started ultimately raised $10, 315, he said. Afterward, the Student Soldier Support Club held a schoolwide run/walk event that raised another $1,164, and additional donations followed.
At the end, Ferrara was able to raise over $12,000 for Houses for Warriors. But the family says it wouldn't have been possible without their network of support.
"When Mike runs these marathons, we really are using a network of friends and family and social media has really kind of helped that," Raymond said. "I think it's important to thank the folks that trusted us donated. It was just overwhelming. I mean just at the amount of people that really came together ... it really was just crazy."
Serving veterans in need
The funds Ferrara raised helped Houses for Warriors open its first group home on Sunday, which will provide affordable housing for nine male veterans and put the organization on a path to open more homes in the future. The veterans will share the house with a house manager, who will maintain the property and ensure anyone who needs help is connected with mental health services, therapy, addiction counseling, or whatever else they could need.
Ferrara and his father were invited to the opening ceremony in Denver.
"Being there, and being able to see first-hand the home that was funded through many generous donations inspired me even more to push forward spreading awareness on veterans homelessness," Ferrara said. "I feel like I made a difference."
"This one home will only solve a fraction of the problem," he added. "The more homeless veterans given a place to live, the lower the suicide rates will go."
Canales, an Iraq War veteran, told TheBlaze his volunteer-run organization's goal is to open 150 similar homes by 2025 to house over 1,500 veterans.
"I've been a guy in a wheelchair in a house that isn't suited for it. I've been homeless, I've been the guy that was struggling with addiction," Canales said. "I've been able to get the help I needed to come out of all of these things and actually feel like I'm doing really well, and I got to a place where I really wanted to give back."
Veterans of the armed forces can face what may seem like insurmountable personal difficulties after they return home. Many struggle with the psychological effects of traumatic experiences, suffer from PTSD or depression, or develop substance abuse or addiction problems. Some might be disabled as a result of injuries sustained in combat. Others may simply find it hard to readjust to civilian life without the military's rigid structure.
"We've had 22 veterans commit suicide a day for the last ten years, since 2009. Now at the same time we had 80,000 homeless veterans on the street," Canales said. "Today, we only have 40,000 homeless veterans on the street. So 40,000 veterans have been housed, nearly 50% of our homeless issue in the veteran community has been solved yet the suicide rate maintains the same and over 40% of those suicides experienced homelessness at some point.
"Veterans are five times more likely than any other demographic to commit suicide if they experienced homelessness," he continued. "And so what I see is the leading cause of suicide in our community being homelessness and that instability."
Canales explained that Houses for Warriors has a "hand UP, not a hand OUT" philosophy. The group isn't giving away free homes. Rather, they are helping homeless veterans have an opportunity for stability, to get help they need, find work and start earning savings, and learn skills they can take with them to live their own lives the way they want to live.
He hopes that one day, with the help of more people like Ferrara, Houses for Warriors can get to the point where employees are paid and the organization can expand nationally.
"I wish I had a hundred more like him," said Canales. "He's only seventeen, imagine after he serves! I see a huge bright future for that guy. He's the kind of people we need in this world to really make the difference. And not just talk about it, but to go out and run a marathon. To go out and make the calls and to contact the reporters. To really just put the effort in and take the responsibility."
"Michael is setting the example."
To learn more about Houses for Warriors, visit their website at HousesForWarriors.org.