Veterans learn the skills necessary to photograph the high-paced action of sports like auto racing, thanks to the collaboration of several nonprofits.

New Lens, New Perspective

Nonprofits work together to teach veterans new skills

By Brett Morash, Director of Operations and Finance, Bob Woodruff Foundation

On Memorial Day weekend I was fortunate enough to attend a veteran event at Lime Rock Park a speedway located in northwest Connecticut. Interestingly, while I have been working in the veteran space since I retired from the U.S. Navy in 2013, it has actually been rare that I have attended an event in my “veteran” capacity rather than in my “provider” role. This was sort of a hybrid in many ways.

Dan Burns is mentor for veterans looking to pursue work as sport photographers.

In January of this year, Dan Burns, a semi-retired professional sports photographer and Vietnam-Era veteran, reached out to Lee Woodruff, our co-founder, to see if we could help him take his dream to the next level. Dan started out on his dream to help other veterans, a number of years ago mentoring a wounded warrior, Mel, in the dynamic world of sports photography. For the past seven years Dan had continued to help Mel by personal mentoring at Special Olympics Connecticut events. Dan and Mel donated their images to Special Olympics and other charities as well—in essence paying it forward.

Nancy Schiliro-Beetstra, outreach specialist with Wounded Warrior Project, approached Dan to see if he would be open to expanding his program to include more veterans. Nancy could assist Dan by identifying veterans who would be interested in pursuing an education in sports photography. However, true to the original vision, the “payback” would be that the veterans would donate their time and energy to another nonprofit. The biggest problem in launching the first event was sourcing about $100,000 of camera gear.

That is when Dan reached out to Lee. This is where I became personally involved. As we like to call it at the Bob Woodruff Foundation there is the “multiplier effect” where we are able to connect the right people to make it happen. I had been on the board of directors for a small nonprofit in New York City called Josephine Herrick Project (JHP) which uses photography to “inspire children, teens, adults and seniors with the visual language of photography, enhancing their abilities to transform communities through artistic vision.”

So I reached out to Matthew Sweetwood the CEO of BeBee and chairman of the board for JHP. Though this connection, Jessica Wanamaker, the new executive director for JHP, was able to convince Canon Professional Services to lend 13 camera rigs, including long range lenses, for the event. The multiplier effect in action!!!

Veterans and their trainers pose for a group shot. Photo by Julia Morash.

A few short weeks later it was game day. My daughter and I piled in the car at “zero dark thirty” and started driving through the hinterlands of Connecticut. A mere 2 hours and thirty minutes later, we arrived through the boreal mist into the aptly named Lime Rock Park, road course in essence. We met up with Dan, the veterans and the folks from WWP, and had our first safety brief before setting out on the track. Julia was a bit too young to get too close, but Dan and some of the other photographers gave her lots of patient training before taking the group picture — her first commercial picture if you will, although it was donated for free.

It was an amazing event with everyone learning something new. For example, I realized that it is incredibly hard work. Every picture I took made the wrong things blurry and the wrong things static. Apparently cars in motion should have the wheels looking like they are in motion, swirly with the background blurry and the logos of the car crisp.

This is what it should look like:

I did exactly the opposite. So maybe I should stick to nonprofit management. All joking aside I reached back out to Matt and asked him what camera I should get… I bought a Canon T6. So Julia and I can start but maybe with slower wheels.

So where am I giving back… Well besides the Bob Woodruff Foundation of course, I feel that I needed to give back in the right way. So pondering this question I felt that I needed to do something that was cool for my daughter — retro veteran for Dan — and of course sports action involved. So on Saturday, June 17, we will be going to support Surburbia Roller Derby a nonprofit in Yonkers, N.Y.

On a more personal note, in the final 8 years of my career I spent a tremendous amount of time away from my family including Japan-based sea duty, a year and a half assignment that brought me to East Africa and finally a tour at the Naval War College where I was a geographic bachelor. Having the opportunity to bond with my 12-yr-old daughter, along with fellow veterans, really made for a nice day. And I have Dan Burns reaching out to the right people — to connect with the right people — to make it happen for the right people.