By Sadie Hunter
A Noblesville couple is making a difference to military families nationwide.
Jeff and Kristen Wells, founders of the Wish for Our Heroes organization, have spent the past seven years filling in the holes left among active-duty service men and women and their families.
“We’re a 501(c)(3) military charity focused on assisting military families’ needs, so things like food, shelter, transportation, child needs, medical expenses not covered by military insurance, stuff like that,” Jeff, 37, said. “We were designed to fill the gaps between government programs and other charities, to try to catch all those families that sort of slip through the cracks.”
An Army man himself, Jeff, who worked as a combat engineer before he left the Army as a captain in 2009, said he has experienced first hand some of the frustration that can come out of dealing with military insurance and wages.
“We saw a need because many of us (involved in the organization) were on active duty or in the military, and we saw the struggle military families face, and that’s why we decided to start this,” he said.
Wish for Our Heroes granted its first wish on Nov. 2, 2009, after Jeff and Kristen started the nonprofit the previous July, soon after the death of Jeff’s father, a Marine who died years after Agent Orange exposure from his military time in Vietnam.
“They had always talked about doing some thing to give back to the troops. So, when he passed, it just seemed like a natural time to do it. Literally the day after he passed away, (Jeff) came back to Indiana … and started the paperwork. In the beginning, we took very meager donations,” Jeff said. “At the time, we were in a recession, so the last thing anybody wanted to do was give to a charity, you know. They’re having a hard time putting their own food on the table.”
“And at that time, people were just over the war, over the whole idea of it,” Kristen, 38, added. “But at the same time, people were still very supportive of the military. So, it was good and bad.”
But the couple continued to work hard to gather donations and put themselves out there. Jeff said Kristen’s background in marketing and public relations helped tremendously.
“We talked to military bases, and they would refer military families who needed help, and we’d save up enough money to help them. That first year, we scraped together about $359,000,” Jeff said.
“At the beginning, it was literally going to a base and asking how we could help. He was going to every base he could get to when he traveled,” Kristen said. “Once we built that trust, the flood gates opened.”
At that point, with more demand, Jeff and Kristen had to begin fundraising efforts.
“We don’t ever just hand money,” Jeff said. “What we do is identify what their need is, and we assist with that particular need. For example, last year alone, we spent $300,000 just on food for active-duty service men and women and their families. That doesn’t count what was matched from Kroger or Walmart. That’s money we just spent out of our bank account, which is very disturbing.”
Wishes granted by the organization vary from family to family, whether it’s fixing someone’s furnace, catching a family up on its rent or electric bill or repairing a family’s only vehicle.
“Any of us civilian can go out and get a second job or do something to supplement,” Kristen said.
“But when you’re stuck in Iraq, how are you going to get a second job?” Jeff added.
Working nearly solely with volunteers, Wish for Our Heroes has one paid employee who handles accounting.
“(It) means the money that we bring in actually goes back out to families,” Jeff said. We’ve operated at about 5 percent overhead since we started.”
“The gold standard for charities is 20 percent overhead,” Kristen added.
Now, the couple has granted more than 2,400 wishes to military families across the United States, more than 500 of which have been granted in Indiana.
To make a wish on behalf of someone you know, or for yourself, visit wishforourheroes.org.
MEET JEFF AND KRISTEN WELLS
Jeff, 37, and Kristen, 38, live in both Noblesville and San Antonio, Texas. They’ve been married for five years. Jeff grew up in Sarasota, Fla., and was active duty in the United States Army from 2001 to 2009, most of which he spent overseas. His most recent deployment was in Baghdad from the end of 2003 to March 2005. Kristen grew up in Cicero, graduating from Hamilton Heights High School in 1996. Together, they own Wells Property Group, which they started in 2011.
BY THE NUMBERS
- 7 – Years in existence.
- 2,400+ – Wishes granted since the organization’s inception.
- 500+ – Wishes granted in Indiana since the organization’s inception.
- 1 – Employee (handles accounting.)
- 300+ – Volunteers nationwide.
- 100+ – Volunteers in Indiana.
- 6-7 – Members on the organization’s Wish Committee.
If interested in donating to Wish for Our Heroes, text AMERICA to 20222 to donate $10, or visit wishforourheroes.org, and click on the Donate tab.