It only takes a moment to get inspired. But it’s where that inspiration leads you that can really make a difference. For John and Moreen McGurk, a moment at a cocktail party led to changing the lives of hundreds of veterans and a continuous cycle of gratitude and impact that will last for generations. And it all started with a river trip.
“My first invitational was rafting on the Yampa and Green Rivers in 1996 at the invitation of Frances Ashley,” recalls Moreen McGurk, about her first interaction with Outward Bound. “The water that year was at a 15 year high; it was very fast and challenging especially for a novice like myself. Our team of mighty women made two formidable crews who worked together under sometimes stressful circumstances and became lifelong friends in the process.”
That trip started it all for Moreen McGurk, who then signed on for two more Outward Bound kayaking trips that she returned from with “positively magical” memories of whales cresting, pods of dolphins trailing the boats and bioluminescent displays in the water long after dark. These experiences led Moreen to join Outward Bound USA’s then National Board of Advisors to serve the organization more broadly. She brought her husband John along for the ride.
John was continually busy with multiple board commitments alongside expanding his real estate investment firm, which he’d grown from three employees to a team of 30 professionals working in expanding global markets. A “fixer” by nature, John’s dedication to integrity and excellence spilled over to the work that he and Moreen did on behalf of Outward Bound. The pair spent untold hours working on Outward Bound’s national benefit dinner and often pondered how they might best be helpful to move Outward Bound USA and its national initiatives forward. Fortunately, it was at a cocktail party, likely orchestrated by the two of them, that their most impactful work took root.
“Attending a cocktail party one evening I was inspired and awed by a young veteran named Justin who spoke about his experiences on an Outward Bound for Veterans expedition and how healing it was for him,” remembers Moreen. “That very evening, I talked to John about Justin’s story of this life changing event. Being a Vietnam vet (Coast Guard) himself, John lent a sympathetic ear. That was the beginning of our commitment to the cause.”
From that moment on, the McGurks have been instrumental supporters of Outward Bound for Veterans. “In the years since I met the McGurks, I came to know John as a man who dedicated himself to the values of integrity, excellence, and service,” says Chad Spangler, National Director of Outward Bound for Veterans. “During meetings, John and Moreen’s insightful questions demonstrated a deep commitment to veterans, pushing us to build the best possible Outward Bound programs for the veterans who commit so much in the service of others. For those of us that were fortunate enough to spend time with the McGurks, we left each meeting inspired by their humility, refreshed by their dedication, humbled by the time that they gave so freely, and more committed than ever to the veterans that we serve.”
For the past four years, the McGurks have been an integral part of Outward Bound for Veterans and its support structure. “Through the generosity and kind spirit of John and Moreen McGurk literally hundreds of veterans have been able to benefit from the experience of Outward Bound,” offered Josh Brankman, executive director of Outward Bound USA. “The McGurks have a personal passion to help veterans rediscover their best selves, and their support and encouragement has impacted families, children, coworkers, friends and communities of Vets across the country, beyond the life-changing healing experienced by the Vets themselves. There is gratitude from all sides of the McGurk’s involvement with Outward Bound that is beyond measure.”
The vets whose lives have been touched by the McGurks do their best to express their appreciation, and their words of thanks are cherished by both Moreen and John. Personal thanks and stories pour in from Outward Bound for Veterans after every course, and the McGurks save many of the letters as a reminder of the need for healing that is specific to a veteran’s experience. One benefactor wrote John that “…because of your big heart you have allowed us to heal and also gave us the tools to start the healing process. Because of you I can put the demons behind me and work on becoming a better father, husband and person. Words can not express how much you mean to me and how much I appreciate what you have done.”
“I do not think there’s enough paper on this earth to express my gratitude, for giving us this opportunity,” says another Outward Bound Veteran in a letter to the McGurks. “Your contributions have allowed us to reconnect with each other, experience this beautiful land, and finally get some peace.”
“The depths of my gratitude cannot be expressed by words, however, I will try,” adds yet another Outward Bound for Veterans participant. “In the last three days 11 strangers became friends. We come from all walks of life and various ages, even our military service is diverse. None of that matters though. I came to Outward Bound with a specific goal, and that was to be open and allow myself vulnerability. Mission accomplished. I feel safe and free here.”
“I’ve missed these feelings of friendship, confidence and self worth, and I am forever grateful for your generosity that helped me with this” writes another. “Trust and confidence in myself was definitely tested and I made it through with the help of our great Instructors and other fellow veterans that were alongside me. I can now go home refreshed, happy and excited to face all of life’s challenges, especially on the tough days.”
The letters they’ve received from Outward Bound for Veterans help bolster their spirits when they themselves have tough days, admits Moreen. The McGurk family is enduring some of those tough days now, as John passed away on October 20, 2018. Moreen and their two sons, Colin and Bryan, are overwhelmed with calls and texts from well-wishers, as John’s impact on others was profound, affirmative and lasting. “I will forever miss the insight and inspiration that came as a result of my conversations with John,” concludes Spangler. “While his loss is deeply felt, his legacy will forever inspire me personally, the veterans that we serve, and Outward Bound as an organization. May we all be as fortunate to live a life that makes such a positive difference in the lives of others, and in the world overall.”
Shared at the encouragement of the McGurk family, John’s commitment “to organizations that valued education, veterans and assisting the less fortunate,” including Outward Bound for Veterans, were noted in his obituary so that the programs he cared most about can still feel his support. “I think my dad would be 100% behind using this sad occasion to do some good for the causes he supported,” said Bryan McGurk.
Albert Schweitzer is famous for saying “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.” The McGurk name has become synonymous with service within Outward Bound, and we are forever grateful and humbled to count Moreen and John McGurk as part of our community and our family.
About the Outward Bound for Veterans Program
Outward Bound for Veterans helps thousands of returning service members and recent veterans readjust to life at home through powerful wilderness courses that draw on the healing benefit of teamwork and challenge through use of the natural world. These expeditions purposefully scaffold wartime experiences with authentic achievements to create positive emotional and mental outcomes. Many veterans experienced courage and a real sense of power and competence while in combat. Outward Bound gives veterans and service members the opportunity to re-experience these strengths in themselves in a different context, helping them to transition back to civilian life. All programs, including travel to and from the course areas from anywhere in the continental US, are fully funded through the generous support of a network of partners, sponsors and donors.