In honor of WQW’s 10-year anniversary, we’re interviewing individuals who have been involved with Warriors and Quiet Waters Foundation in different capacities. This month, we’re interviewing Joe Esparza, WQW’s current board chair, and long-time volunteer with WQW. 

To provide some context for our audience, tell me who you are, a little bit about your background, and how you are involved with Warriors and Quiet Waters.

Joe Esparza, Board Chair for Warriors and Quiet Waters. Day Job: Leadership Coach.

I took over board leadership from one of our founders and Board Chair Emeritus, Eric Hastings. To say it was a little daunting would be an understatement. Our organization at the time was in the middle of a $7mm capital campaign and still transitioning from a volunteer run organization to one run by professional staff. This was necessary to insure that WQW would remain a viable organization no matter who was in charge. I was blessed to have a very competent Executive Director, staff, and fellow board members that helped make this transition successful.

I became involved with the organization approximately 6-7 years ago as a volunteer companion (I love to fly fish and my son is active duty so it was a great fit for me). From the moment of the first experience with that warrior I was hooked. Shortly after that my wife Ris Higgins, was facilitating board retreats for WQW. I attended one of them to help with facilitation of the meeting. I was asked to become a member of the board and eventually became vice-chair, then chair.

Why fly fishing? What is it about fly fishing that provides healing?

A month or so ago I attended the American Warrior Symposium in Atlanta, Georgia. While I was there I met a former Marine and now educator Kate Hendricks Thomas. In her brief, she describes Resilience Theory. Which is a fancy way to say if you are resilient you have the ability to bounce back from adversity and use the past challenges and even failures to help you to drive through life’s challenges. In her book; Brave Strong True, Ms. Hendricks Thomas describes three things that are needed to have resilience.

  1. Positive Social Network
  2. Practice Self Care—Namely Eating Right, Getting Rest and Exercise
  3. Spiritual Connection—To something greater than yourself

WQW Fishing Experiences (FX) hit on all three of these characteristics. Maybe we were lucky when our founders designed the FX that this happened. However, I believe we were divinely led to create the FX and now subsequent programming to hit all three areas for our warriors.

Can you describe to us the evolution of the program over the last 10 years? Which changes have made the biggest impact on warriors and experience?

I think the biggest change I have seen in the organization is in two areas.

  1. Professionalization of the organization by hiring staff to run the organization beyond the visionary founders and volunteers. WQW started off as a bunch of dedicated folks working their tails off to provide veterans a therapeutic fly fishing experience and now it’s a professional organization that will outlive us all.

It’s incredible that over the last 10 years, we’ve put a team and an organization in place that will last for years and years.

  1. Exploring how we can grow our programming to reach deeper into helping warriors with their transitions. The additions that we’re making to programming will continue to assist warriors in transition between military and civilian life.

What is your favorite part about a Fishing Experience (FX)?

My favorite thing in taking a part in an FX is seeing the difference in the warriors on Monday, vs. Wednesday vs. Friday. The transition is literally something that you see. It is a miraculous event when you see participants grow more hope, laugh, build their resilience and connect with volunteers who up until recently were part of the civilians that they may not have trusted. There is a felt sense of gratitude for the volunteers who have served them during the week. I think the warriors believe that something can be different in their lives and that there are more possibilities ahead for them than they thought before coming to Montana.

How have warrior needs changed?

When we first started, we were serving people who were just getting out wounded warrior battalions. We were solving challenges for people who were just leaving medical facilities. Most post-9/11 combat veterans have transitioned from this acute injury phase to chronic challenges that come with reintegrating back into society, which has changed the trajectory of our organization as we adapt to meet these needs. We will continue to adapt and change as our warriors needs change.

What is your hope for WQW going into its 10th year?

I think for me, we’re at the tail end at the transition from an all-volunteer organization to a professionally run organization, and I look at the end of this decade as completing that transition.

What is your hope for WQW in its 50th year? What is the legacy that you hope the organization builds?

I pray for the day when our organization isn’t needed. However, as long as there are men and women that stand up and say, “Send me,” we have the duty to provide love and care to them; to welcome them back into society and heal the visible and invisible wounds of war.

As an organization, we have unique offerings in a place that invites reflection and healing. I think our secret sauce will always be to bring the warrior community here to slow down, allow themselves to be cared for, immerse themselves in nature, and be in a beautiful environment that inspires them to connect with something greater than themselves.  From day one this has been the foundation of what we do, and in my eyes and it will be the foundation 50 years from now.