Orange County commissioners from each district name one citizen to honor for his or her extensive community work throughout the year. This year, District 1 Commissioner Nicole Wilson selected Oakland resident Kurt Gies for the Citizen of the Year Award.
Gies is a 25-year veteran of the United States Navy who serves as the commander of American Legion Post 63 in Winter Garden. After learning how many veterans are lost every day to suicide, he founded Challenge 22, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness and funding lifesaving mental health treatment.
“Mr. Gies is a perfect example of the community leadership that makes West Orange County a better place,” Wilson said. “Kurt's intentions are so straightforwardly good: He realized the need to destigmatize and treat veteran post-traumatic stress, so he decided to address that need head-on. His work through Challenge 22 and American Legion directly benefits thousands of veterans, and his events draw crowds from near and far to Winter Garden for all the right reasons.”
September is Suicide Awareness Month. In 2016, Gies received a notice and a challenge to get a group of people together to walk in honor of the 22 veterans who commit suicide every day.
The first Challenge 22 walk had one participant: Gies, who, at the time, was post chaplain.
“I walked alone, and I said, ‘I’m not going to walk alone next year,’” he said.
While grateful for the honor, Gies is uncomfortable being singled out.
“It’s humbling to me, it’s kind of embarrassing, because I don’t do this for that (recognition), and there’s so many people who work their tails off, so for me to get something for all they did seemed a little odd,” he said.
“What we’re doing is actually making an impact,” Gies said. “I’m not about the money raised … I’m about how many lives we impact.”
Challenge 22 puts veterans in touch with organizations that can directly help them with traumatic issues that are mental, physical, social or spiritual.
“We tell our veterans, you pick the solution because there is no one size fits all,” Gies said. “It’s all paid for, and then if that’s doesn’t work, pick something else. … The family members are just as impacted by it.
“The nonprofits we fund directly, we have 11 or 12, in their reporting back to us — we figure it’s just over 10,000 veterans, first responders, active duty and family members, those people we consider high risk for suicide, and not one of them has attempted suicide,” Gies said. “I think it’s just a recognition of what we’re doing is having an impact. … I hope that it will open doors for future growth, that people who didn’t see it before will see it now and say they want to get involved in it.”
Gies is seeking folks to sit on the organization’s board and help connect it to even more community resources. Visit challenge22walk.com to join.
“As we’ve matured (in seven years), we’ve identified strengths,” he said. “The board has transformed this from a cool event to something that is now professional. … I truly believe Winter Garden, Florida, started this cause nationwide. Other Challenge 22 (events are popping up across the country. … Awareness is not me telling you, it’s you taking that information and sharing it.”
His goal is to see Challenge 22 in every state.
“We know we’re on a path here that is working,” Gies said. “We just need to take it from community to community to community.”
“We're incredibly lucky to have Kurt here in District 1,” Wilson said. “A Citizen of the Year Award doesn't begin to encapsulate my appreciation.”