In 2005, my daughters, Rachel and Kelsi Okun, then aged 10 and 8, became fascinated with the appeal of treasure hunts and wondered if the allure of such a game could support a national goal. At the time, Rachel and Kelsi witnessed their neighbor, Lt. Col. Lanier Ward, come back from Iraq severely injured by an IED explosion, and they saw the hardships that he and his family faced during his recovery.

My daughters decided to dedicate their treasure hunt to thanking the children and spouses of our U.S. military by providing them with the gift of education.

After months of planning around the kitchen table, and with the help of their mother and me, friends, neighbors and teachers, “Treasure Hunt Aiding the Needs of Kids and Spouses of those serving in the United States of America” (ThanksUSA) was born. Launched in 2006, ThanksUSA has sought to mobilize Americans of all ages to “thank” our active-duty troops and post 9-11 veterans by providing need-based college, technical and vocational school scholarships to their spouses and children.

Kelsi Okun, left, and Rachel Okun, shown with Bob Okun, address the audience at a 2011 ThanksUSA benefit event.

Through the girls’ tireless efforts and philanthropic spirit, ThanksUSA has grown into a military family nonprofit that has awarded more than 4,200 need-based, postsecondary scholarships valued at more than $13 million to military spouses and kids from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. ThanksUSA scholars come from all branches of military service, including the National Guard and Reserves, with preference given to families of the fallen and wounded.

The real benefits of these scholarships are being realized in the lives and success stories of those who have received them. ThanksUSA scholars have noted that the gift of education has allowed them to pursue their dreams and, in turn, made them better — a better pediatrician, a better teacher, a better nuclear scientist. Their deep sense of gratitude has ignited a strong desire to give back to the community by “paying it forward.” And the difference that ThanksUSA alumni are making across the nation is immeasurable.

Pathways for Patriots

Today, Rachel and Kelsi are both in college themselves, still raising funds, helping build the scholars’ alumni network, and steering the vision and direction of the organization as members of ThanksUSA’s Board of Directors. With Rachel’s and Kelsi’s keen insight and input, ThanksUSA recently launched a new initiative called Pathways for Patriots.

The Pathways program is designed to create pipelines of talented military spouses and children interested in pursuing postsecondary degrees, certifications and, ultimately, careers in occupations that companies are struggling to fill. The following are among the industries facing critical skills gaps that are taking part in the Pathways program:

  • STEM-related fields (science, technology, engineering and math)
  • Public service
  • Health care
  • Manufacturing
  • Energy

This new initiative not only presents an opportunity for companies to support our military families, but it also provides return on investment beyond philanthropy by encouraging diversity in hiring. Corporations that take part in the Pathways for Patriots program are being matched with our nation’s best and brightest military children and spouses with proven track records and unique life experiences that help them succeed in the private sector.

As active and engaged participants of the Pathways program, our corporate partners are granting scholarships in locations where they have a large presence and in academic disciplines that match specific needs or skills gaps in the industries they represent. They are also providing mentoring and networking opportunities through employee engagement and through internships that allow scholars to apply in the workplace what they are learning at school — with an eye on full-time employment for military spouses and kids who successfully graduate and who have proven themselves as valued employees.

Partners in student success

Much of what ThanksUSA hopes to accomplish would not be possible without the collaboration of Strada Education Network, which has supported ThanksUSA since the very beginning and now — as one of our strategic partners — provides a unique opportunity to help Pathways for Patriots reach new heights in 2018 and beyond.

Zoe Jones joins fellow ThanksUSA scholarship recipients at the organization’s recent Treasure Our Troops Gala.

Like the Pathways program, Strada Education’s “Completion With a Purpose®” helps students build a more purposeful pathway through college or other postsecondary education to rewarding careers and fulfilling lives. As Strada Education strives to address critical higher education and workforce challenges through a unique combination of strategic philanthropy, research and innovative solutions, ThanksUSA strives to bring their insights to bear for military families by providing them purposeful pathways to meaningful employment.

As we reflect this Veterans Day and look back over a dozen years, it is hard to believe how much ThanksUSA has grown as an organization, and hard to measure the impact it has made on the lives of the families that have sacrificed so much and served this country so well.

Let us thank those who have served our country so bravely by supporting the ones who stood by their side: their families.