Fuel Your Purpose: Open Doors outdoors

Tackling Mental Health and Building Community Through Hiking

— Anne Mercer

"To have made even one person's life a little better, that is to succeed" - Henry David Thoreau

Have you ever trekked to the top of a mountain?

The beginning is filled with excitement, but after that first mile, it gets increasingly difficult. You begin to count down the remaining miles, ration your snacks and water supply, and question why you decided to hike up a mountain in the first place.

Even the most experienced hikers experience moments of doubt, frustration, and anguish as they journey through challenging trails.

But once you reach the top, the best way to describe the feeling is euphoria.

As you look out at the view, you can’t help but feel proud of yourself for pushing through and making it to the top. And while you catch your breath, you begin to recount the little moments along the way that made it all worthwhile.

Davey Edwards wants to share that sense of accomplishment and camaraderie with others. So much so that he’s built an entire non-profit organization around this passion.

Finding the Silver Lining in Turbulent Times

“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” - Henry David Thoreau

Davey Edwards is the Founder of Open Doors Outdoors, a non-profit organization based in South Glastonbury that takes Veterans, their families, and young people into the outdoors for reconnection, healthy activity, and healing.

“I think that’s what makes Open Doors Outdoors work, that love of the outdoors.”

While his passion for the outdoors is at the core of the organization, the genesis of Open Doors Outdoors begins with his personal story. 

Davey joined the Marine Corps at the young age of 19. The day he was set to ship out to basic training, his mother lost a three year battle with cancer.

One month later, he began his career with the Marine Corps during Desert Shield. After completing his training, he was not deployed and was stationed in different units across the United States.

Davey thrived as a Marine and found himself as a Training Chief for his unit in his early 20s, requiring him to oversee all training for the men in his Reserve unit under the command of an Active Duty Gunnery Sergeant.

One day on a training run with his unit, Davey watched as his Gunnery Sergeant fell headfirst into the gravel road and had a heart attack.

I rolled him over and had to watch him die. We tried to bring him back for what felt like forever, 35 or 40 minutes, but it felt like forever.

Experiencing a jarring emergency such as this is enough to rock anyone to their core. But, as a Marine, Davey got back to his unit and told the men with a stoic demeanor, “Yes, I’m fine.”

“You’re a Marine. You don’t think twice about it.”

Several years later, after his military service concluded, a friend told Davey he may have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD.)

As many Veterans do, Davey sought assistance from the Connecticut Veteran Affairs. While telling his story to them, he began to cry. It was the first time he had ever cried while telling the story of his Gunnery Sergeant. He then enrolled in a 12-week program for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

“The hardest thing for me was probably the shame. I have a mental illness and that’s not an easy thing to grasp.”

After completing the program and re-entering the community, Davey understood that much of the responsibility for his wellbeing was now on his shoulders. But this lack of an “after” left him with a gap in resources, which he noticed as he went through a divorce six years later.

It was at this moment that the foundations of Open Doors Outdoors began to form.

As a father of three, Davey needed to take care of and entertain his kids while enduring the trials and tribulations of a divorce. As he explains it, this time was particularly rough financially as well.

“Even with everything going on, I knew that if we had shoes, snacks, and gas, we could get outdoors and go hiking.”

With this mindset, Davey started taking his kids hiking all over New England, from Mount Greylock to the White Mountains and beyond. He began sharing his hiking adventures on social media and discovered that people wanted to join in on the experience.

“They’d ask me where a particular hike was and if they could join us next time.”

And, they would.

Davey soon found himself bringing more and more people on hikes and sharing in the adventures. He thought to himself, “There might be something to this…”

Soon after, Open Doors Outdoors was founded with the mission of taking Veterans, their families, and young people into the outdoors for re-connection, healthy activity, and healing.

“If you can get three kids up a mountain, you are a professional guide! Everything you do with a child, you do with adults. You talk them through it. Some adults break down, they don’t want to keep going. They’re hungry and tired. So I learned how to be so good at getting adults up a mountain. It’s not the Marine Corps way. It’s how a father of three young kids does it. If I took adults up the mountains the Marine Corps way, we wouldn’t have an organization!”

But the mission of Open Doors Outdoors is far grander than bringing Veterans outside for fresh air and activity. Each Veteran gets something different out of ODO’s programs, whether that be a sense of community, a place to share and connect, or a path to healing.

Connecting & Healing Through the Great Outdoors

Davey calls the drive to his hiking adventures “windshield therapy.”

“I love new things and as you’re driving up to the trailhead, you see the sights, cars passing by, and there’s always something new to see. You can climb the same mountain a few times and there’s always something new to experience.”

You might be surprised to learn that his favorite part of a hike is when it’s over. And, Matt Udal, a volunteer and member of the ODO Board of Directors, corroborates that sentiment adding, “I’ve never seen someone as amped up as Davey is after he finishes a hike.”

The reason he’s so excited? The sense of accomplishment. Open Doors Outdoors isn’t taking people for leisurely walks in the woods. They’re taking Veterans, families, and young folks up the side of mountains, through winding elevation, and encouraging them to face the challenge head-on.

“Giving that sense of joy and accomplishment to someone else is the thing I enjoy the most. I love the outdoors, but I don’t like doing it alone.”

On the surface, Open Doors Outdoors is an organization that’s building a community through hiking and other outdoor activities. But spend time with this community and you’ll see there’s a much bigger movement and deeper connection happening.

“We’re a small operation with a big impact,” Davey explains. “I walk with giants. Not being a combat veteran, but getting to help combat veterans. They’re telling the story.”

Davey equates it to the coffee industry. 

“It’s the results. It’s like coffee. Coffee tells the story. Nobody knows how many farms you visit or the hours you spend roasting, they just taste the coffee. Nobody knows about the calls at 2:00 am, the intense conversations we have, the ongoing work we do, and all that. They just see the veteran.”

We may not get to see what a Veteran is dealing with daily, but this doesn’t mean it’s not there.

As Matt explained, mental health doesn’t discriminate. Mental health doesn’t care if you’re a Veteran, a student, or a parent. It doesn’t care where you're from or what you’ve experienced.

“The world is not set up for success for a lot of people. When you’re dealing with mental health issues, you can’t see it. You’re on your own. And that’s what’s so special about what we’re doing as an organization with Open Doors Outdoors. We’re actively out there and serving as a resource, trying to touch as many lives as possible.”

Open Doors Outdoors offers Veterans far more than a few hikes in the woods with friends. It provides an outlet for individuals to take active steps to tackle mental health and other personal challenges through experiences like conquering a mountain trail or snowshoeing on a cold, winter day. Both Davey and Matt said it best,

“We get to see and hear a lot of different things from different people. They’re all dealing with their mental health and telling stories about themselves. Or sharing just enough so they can start making that first step toward getting better.”

Since launching in 2018, Open Doors Outdoors has completed more than 100 hikes (and counting!) with Veterans and their families, all while launching new programs including UTV rides, kayaking, and snowshoeing. 

A Wave of Impact

We’ve been conversing with Davey and Matt from Open Doors Outdoors for quite some time now. After all, their ethos fits perfectly within the Victus Coffee mission to support non-profit organizations promoting wellness and advocacy.

In every conversation, Davey reiterated the importance of building individual communities of Veterans. Why? Because each action or community makes a wave of impact. 

Those waves impact other communities, sparking the interest of other Veterans and their families. And, before you know it, there’s an entire ocean of positive waves flowing toward those who need it.

This concept is evident as Open Doors Outdoors expands beyond Connecticut, with members carrying the torch to Washington, Oregon, and Colorado.

“Our Veterans become family. When they leave, it’s sad, but they’re carrying on the mission. It’s a strange thing, but it’s beautiful.”

Open Doors Outdoors’ goals for the future include continued expansion of its hiking program to new states and communities. This involves partnering with like-minded organizations and companies such as our wonderful friends at Fleet Feet West Hartford, who continue to donate shoes and funds to ODO.

Grants from organizations such as the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving also allowed ODO to expand programs such as UTV and kayaking activities.

All this is only the beginning for Open Doors Outdoors. The organization’s wave of impact continues in 2022 as Open Doors Outdoors launches their ODO272 Challenge.

From August 31st to September 5th, ODO will lead a select group of participants on a six-day, 272-mile adventure with 66,000 feet of elevation gain. The group will traverse the entire Long Trail in Vermont on foot, starting at the Canadian Border and heading south to the border of Massachusetts.

And they’re inviting you to participate virtually! From April 1st to September 5th, everyone is invited to walk, ruck, hike, or run 272 miles as part of a virtual challenge. Participants are encouraged to donate $1 per mile they complete.

Davey’s goal for the ODO challenge? “In five years, I want 272 Veterans to sign up and participate!”

Sign up for the ODO272 Challenge and help make an impact!

Rapid Fire Questions 

— "Tell us about your favorite outdoor experience."

Matt: “That would have to be the CrossFit and 5K experience I did in Alabama with Steph from Fleet Feet West Hartford. We were able to bring Matt, a Veteran, down to participate in the team event where we had to do everything from 150 air squats, swim under a waterfall, and so much more. The elation Davey feels after a hike is the way I felt after this event!”

Davey: “My all-time favorite hike was with my son, Luke, when he was 6 years old. We hiked Mount Washington. We drove up the night before, slept in my minivan at the base of the parking lot, and woke up at 6:00 am to start hiking.

Along the way, I would look back and he would be talking to himself with his head down and laughing. I’d be like, “Who are you talking to?” and he’d say “No one!” and I’d do it again and again. It was the best time.

Getting him to the top was seamless and he probably had more energy on the way back down! He won’t know the impact of what he accomplished until he’s older, but that experience will live with me forever.”

— “How do you like to stay active?”

Matt: “I try to do every and anything to stay as active as possible. I carry a 40lb weight vest in my car, I bike, go to Crossfit, and more. I want to stay active so I can have a quality of life when I’m 80 years old.”

Davey: “I think I love mountain biking more than I love hiking! But I also go rucking, do kettlebells, and go to the gym. Right now I’m training for the ODO272 challenge!”

— “Do you have a favorite coffee experience or memory?

Matt: “There’s nothing better than the smell of freshly ground coffee in the morning. Coffee shops are a special place. Where else do you have the ability to go in, customize your drink, and make it a special experience just for you? It becomes a place to hang out and create an experience beyond the transaction. Just this morning I had a business meeting over coffee!”

Davey: “I will always remember how my Mother poured ‘clouds’ in her coffee. When I was little, we’d walk up to my Uncle’s house in Manchester and I’d watch as they played rummy, smoked, and drank coffee. I’ll never forget watching my Mom pour the clouds in her coffee. Now I take my coffee the same way.

And, now my daughter is getting into coffee! I make my coffee in a French Press at home. One day my daughter asked, ‘How many scoops in a French Press?’ Now she makes her iced coffee every morning in a French Press. It’s a cool thing because she saw me do it first. So, that little thing is because of me, and that’s special.

Plus, we always get coffee on the way back from a hike!”

— “If you could share a cup of coffee with anyone, alive or dead, who would it be and why?”

Matt: “I would like to have coffee with my grandparents. My grandfather, August, passed away many years ago but I would love to have a coffee with him and update him on my life, accomplishments, and family.

He is still so special to me. He came from Estonia through Ellis Island with nothing. It’s wild to think that I’m only two generations away from him, I’m so inspired by him. He taught me to work hard, put my mind to something, and not be afraid to fail.”

Davey: “My Mom. She was an amazing woman and I’m seeing more and more of myself in her as I get older. She was a legend! She led a women’s ministry and impacted so many people.”

The best way to help Open Doors Outdoors reach more Veterans is to share their mission with your friends and family. You never know who might benefit from a hike. Learn more at OpenDoorsOutdoors.org.

Know someone who we should interview?
Send us a message at anne@victuscoffee.com.