Beaverton-born nonprofit battles veteran suicide rate 'one gym membership at a time'

TIMES FILE PHOTO - Carter Davis began Lift for the 22 after a shattered leg ended his career in the military and started his own sometimes difficult transition back to civilian life.In the bench press, the term “spotting” means being right there for a fellow lifter, prepared to take just enough of the burden off to get them through that last heavy repetition.

In its first year, a nonprofit group born in Beaverton has “spotted” nearly 500 military veterans with something far bigger than a bar threaded with clanking metal plates.

Carter Davis calls Lift for the 22’s mission “Saving Veteran Lives One Gym Membership at a Time.”

Davis, a former U.S. Navy Corpsman who had worked as a medic with the Marines, leads the nonprofit he co-founded last summer. By the end of this July, his organization and its gym partners had given out 481 free one-year gym memberships to veterans trying to make their way back into civilian life.

Davis, now 27, knows what that's like.

A severely shattered leg during a recreational soccer match forced Davis to medically retire from the service, which he had planned to make a career. Personal problems piled onto the loss of his identity and nearly broke him until he called some buddies and together they hit the gym.

The simple act of pumping iron with friends lifted his mood while it simultaneously helped his body.

That experience was the light bulb moment that led Davis to found Lift for the 22 after he returned to Beaverton, where he had spent most of his childhood.

“Our goal is to grab the veteran when they get out of the military and throw them into a gym in their hometown,” Davis said. “Our program is something that provides a solution to the transitional problems veterans face.”

Like Davis, most veterans who experience difficult transitions aren’t affected by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from combat, which gets much of the attention around veteran mental health. But they still face a difficult re-adjustment back to civilian life, facing issues related to employment, relationships, child custody issues, military benefits and other uncertainties.

“Those are the guys who end up with a gun in their mouth,” Davis said.

The “22” in his organization’s name comes from a much-cited study that found an average of 22 veterans of U.S. military service from all eras commit suicide every day. Davis believes the number likely underestimates the problem, but the figure has become the very symbol of a problem that is larger than many people previously believed.

It was at Workout Anytime, located in the Hyland Hills Shopping Center at the intersection of Southwest Allen and Murray boulevards, where Lift for the 22 found its bearings.

Gym owner Rick Hascall had recently opened Oregon's first Workout Anytime and was an early supporter of the organization, offering 22 free one-year memberships to veterans and also giving Davis a job at the gym.

“I’m proud as a peacock that I was able to be a part of making it happen,” Hascall said. “There’s no way of knowing how many people coming into my gym are being helped because of this program.”

The nonprofit has paid Hascall a discounted price for another 45 memberships for veterans, making the Beaverton gym one of the most active of the 139 gyms that so far have partnered with the organization. Most of those are Workout Anywhere franchise locations, but Davis also has partnered with dozens of other gyms, typically locally owned franchises or stand-alone gyms.

Recipients often work out together, forming tight networks of fellow veterans they can call or message anytime to meet for a workout or a talk when they need a little help getting through a rough day.

Now, the veterans who got the first free memberships beginning last summer are beginning to pay to stay at their gyms, and many also have brought in additional paying clients with them.

“It’s an incentive for these gyms to partner with us,” said Davis, who serves as Lift for the 22’s chief executive officer.

But for Davis, the real victory can’t be measured in dollar signs.

“We’ve had no reports of any of the veterans in our program committing suicide,” he said.

Lift for the 22 also works closely with a handful of other groups that also aim at reducing veteran suicides.

“We’re all fighting the same suicide battle,” he said. “We’re just doing it in different ways.”

Davis said that the groups have documented many prevented suicides. Still, they have a long way to go. For him, one of the hardest losses over the past year was a friend who committed suicide in San Diego, where Lift for the 22 had not yet found any willing gym partners.

“It would have given him a place to go,” Davis said solemnly. “It motivated me to keep pushing this.”

Dollars are important in that they buy more gym memberships. The nonprofit has raised about $40,000 so far, much of it through sales of its line of clothing.

Davis has his sights set on serving more vets in more cities in part by boosting its budget through donations, grants and business sponsorships. He also hopes to attract some talented volunteers with experience in nonprofits, especially with finance and grant-writing.

Comedian George Lopez and musicians including Charlie Daniels, Colt Ford and REO Speedwagon’s Kevin Cronin have given shout-outs (and some free show tickets) to help raise the profile of Lift for the 22.

Davis this month is leaving Beaverton for Chicago, where he will help develop Lift for the 22 in more markets in the Midwest and East while also preparing to attend nursing school.

Dennis Wright, a Lift for the 22 co-founder and one of its first gym membership recipients, will remain in Oregon and continue serving as chief operating officer, Davis said.

“It’s been a wonderful blessing to watch these guys’ lives change,” Davis said.

By Eric Apalategui
Beaverton Reporter
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