By Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer, Macon County News – October 15, 2020 —

A crisp fall day marked the celebratory nature of the Franklin Chamber of Commerce’s recognition that Special Liberty Project, now based in Macon County, is its newest member. On Oct. 14, Special Liberty Project officially opened its East Coast Retreat Center and new Franklin, N.C., headquarters with the chamber, local and state politicians, area veterans, and the local media present. 

Among the officials attending the event were Macon County Commissioners Gary Shields, who spoke about being a Vietnam veteran, and Karl Gillespie. U.S. Representative NC 11th district candidates Madison Cawthorn and Morris “Moe” Davis also spoke. 

Special Liberty Project recently re-located to the Holly Springs area of Macon County. Founders of the organization, Cory and Jessica Merritt, first established the nonprofit four years ago in San Diego, Calif., where they were stationed for 20 years. Cory, a U.S. Navy Senior Chief involved in search and rescue, grew up enjoying outdoor pursuits like hunting, while Jessica has always had a love of nature and a passion for understanding food origins and sustainable living. 

The couple decided to combine their passions, interests, and concerns to establish Special Liberty project after Cory had the opportunity to be involved in an event for Wounded Warriors. “He invited a Wounded Warriors friend he knew,” said Jessica. “The very next day after they came back from being in the woods shooting and hiking, I got a message from his spouse. She was over-the-top thanking us because she said her husband had been in a very dark place, but she could see the difference the time with my husband had made and she felt encouraged that her husband was going to be okay. We decided the next day to start a nonprofit.”

Special Liberty Project, in essence, provides nature-oriented programs for individuals and groups of people who have experienced traumatic military-related loss. The organization is named Special Liberty Project “because we want people and children to come to us for at least three days so there is an opportunity to truly unwind and benefit from the program,” said Jessica. The term “special liberty,” means a special three-day pass or “anything above and beyond what is granted to you by your commanding officer,” she explained. “Being a military family is extremely hard, even without loss. Freedom is not free.”

The initial intention of Special Liberty Project was to provide outdoor experiences for veterans who are healing physically and emotionally. It quickly became apparent that programs for children and spouses – whole families – were needed as well. 

“When my husband is deployed, I am the one there for my kids,” said Jessica. “And then for families who have lost someone … we realized kids especially need something more than what one spouse can provide for them.” 

Thus, Special Liberty Project offers Gold Star Kids, Gold Star Families, and Gold Star Parent/Spouse. Currently, according to the Veteran’s Administration, in the U.S. there are 453,000 “survivors of veterans who died from service-related conditions.” Many Special Liberty Project participants are involved not only as a result of a military loved one who has been disabled or killed in combat but because of suicide. Jessica shared a recent statistic: 22 veterans commit suicide per day, nearly 79,000 since 2005. 

Veteran Christian Pruitt said, “With programs like this one, the hope is that the suicide rate will go down.” 

Gold Star Kids have a chance to pair up with veterans and volunteers and learn and participate in such activities as woodworking, archery, fishing, hiking, camping, hunting, power tool use, and more. Gold Star Parents/Spouses participate in nature-based retreats that focus on their well-being in three key areas: physical (yoga, hiking, equine activities, kayaking, and more); skills (soap making, preservation of home-grown vegetables, pottery, jewelry design, gardening); and, emotional well-being (meditation, journaling, etc.). 

“We try to be outside as much as possible and focus on peer support,” said Jessica. “Oftentimes, these people who come to our programs are so judged. They won’t or can’t share unless they’re around others who have gone through what they’ve gone through … especially if a parent/spouse died by suicide. These programs are life-changing for many of them.” 

“I can speak to how important it is to get outside – in nature – after a traumatic event,” Cawthorn told the crowd. “Being in nature reminds you life still goes on … encourages you. So important that whatever we’re facing, we continue to push through it.” 

The Merritts are originally from Michigan and were high school sweethearts before marrying 13 years ago. They have 10-year-old twins, Wesley and Charlotte. Cory will be retiring next month, but he has deployed nine times during his 20 years of service. 

The couple decided to make Franklin their permanent residence for their family and Special Liberty Project because of the natural surroundings, opportunities for outdoor pursuits, and proximity to numerous bases in North Carolina and surrounding states. Said Jessica, “We wanted to expand our operations and build a retreat center facility. We looked on the West Coast for a very long time, but we couldn’t find what we needed. So we ventured to the East Coast last summer and looked all over different states. This area had everything we were looking for.”

Davis shared that there are about 65,000 veterans in the district. “It’s so important to preserve the Veteran’s Administration and to support veterans,” he said. 

Currently, Special Liberty project is Jessica’s full-time job. She is chief executive officer. When Cory retires from the Navy, he plans to take at least a year off to build the retreat center, farm the land, and work full-time for the organization.

“When we first started Special Liberty Project, it was a lot, but then we got a lot of wonderful volunteers. And we have amazing employees and board of directors,” said Jessica. Currently, there are three employees and hundreds of volunteers. All of the veteran mentors are volunteers. Around 500 people and/or children have been involved in Special Liberty Project programs so far. 

“What participants gain from our services,” said Jessica, “is accomplishment, much needed camaraderie with participants who’ve experienced similar trauma, self-love and respect. Participants are generally happier and less stressed after attending a Special Liberty Project program … they return home with a renewed sense of self and fresh techniques or activities to help them navigate difficult days.

All Special Liberty Project programs are free. “No one has to pay out of pocket, and in order to do that we host many fundraisers and look for tax deductible donation opportunities,” said Jessica. 

Becoming involved with the Franklin Chamber of Commerce will not only bring local awareness to Special Liberty Project, but Jessica said, “We want to form relationships with local businesses, companies, and other organizations. We enjoy partnering with other organizations and nonprofits. We’re not competing; we are interested in a win-win.” 

Jessica pointed out that it is a “breath of fresh air” to operate Special Liberty Project in Macon County compared to the lack of encouragement experienced in California. “I just want to thank the community as a whole. We’ve been so well respected and welcomed. When people find out we are a military family, they thank us and tell us to thank my husband. And they ask us how we can help.” 

Anyone interested in volunteering at Special Liberty Project can fill out the website form or email jessica@speciallibertyproject.org. “We are always looking for individuals and teams, youth groups for example, to be involved,” she said. “The Franklin High School agriculture class came out recently and helped us put up fencing. I will pattern the project to the individual or the type of group.” 

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