K9s For Warriors’ Rory Diamond and Shari Duval are two individuals who go the distance when it comes to giving veterans a new leash on life.
By taking a long drive down the bends of Palm Valley Road in Ponte Vedra, Florida, folks can find a treasure many are still unaware of. Near the extravagant homes adorned with Mediterranean accents, behind the renowned 17th hole of TPC Sawgrass, and just before the relics of historic St. Augustine, an extraordinary place can be found. Many people inadvertently pass this site, lost in thought or caught off-guard by its secluded location.
This place was constructed out of something more than steel frames, rivets, and bolts. The place’s real foundation was built on love and made possible through blood, sweat, and tears. In order to help mend the broken hearts and heal the invisible wounds of many American heroes, K9s For Warriors was established in 2011. Four years later, the organization opened a state-of-the-art campus, gifted through a grassroots, community effort. The new facility has been open for over two years and is an asset in the organization’s ability to contend in the fight against veteran suicide. Known as Camp K9, the multi-million dollar, 17,000 square foot campus is the hidden gem of St. Johns County's Nocatee neighborhood.
Each month, the organization's facility becomes home and staff becomes family to veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, and/or military sexual trauma. During a three-week stay, these veterans train and bond with canines the organization rescues from high-kill shelters or other dire situations. Months prior to the arrival of a new warrior class (12 classes per year), professional trainers teach these amazing animals the ins-and-outs of becoming working dogs for veterans who need something more than traditional therapy and medication. In turn, two lives are saved with each pairing.
Paying a visit to Camp K9 is a sure way to awaken the spirit. Out in plain sight, many things become abundantly clear: There are still people who care about others. There are still places that operate on optimism. There are still missions that truly make a difference. There are still exceptional leaders – and these concepts are still alive and strong.
A Camp K9 visitor can expect to experience a variety of emotions. A gust of wind, fresh off the salty Atlantic Ocean gains momentum. Seven flags, one for each military branch, POW/MIA, and of course, Old Glory dance high above the property, gently in the breeze. It is so wonderful to live in America, a sense of pride begins to surface. The lush, green landscape soothes the senses. The sound of barking dogs echoes in the distance… it’s a melody of happiness. The front porch of Camp K9 is serene and welcoming. Rocking chairs line the entryway… the perfect touch of Southern charm. Smiling staff members are genuine and enthusiastic.
A new sound becomes the center of attention – a loud, boisterous ring of laughter - which belongs to the organization’s ambitious CEO, Rory Diamond. A blonde, spirited woman holding a large fountain drink of Diet Coke enters Diamond’s office. The woman is Shari Duval, the one-of-a-kind founder of K9s For Warriors. Although Duval recently retired from the national 501(c)(3), she still plays an active role in the organization she established to help her son overcome his own PTSD battle. Shari is a few minutes early for a meeting with Rory. They begin to discuss a new sponsorship opportunity, one that could be very lucrative. At first glance, they seem to be polar opposites, but the two have commonalities: both leaders possess a ruthless drive and an incredible passion to improve the lives of others. Their similarities and even differences help keep K9s For Warriors afloat. Between the two - no idea is impossible, no obstacle is insurmountable. Both individuals are pillars of K9s For Warriors and their communities.
“We are saving lives, both human and canine,” says Shari Duval, founder, K9s For Warriors. “With a dedicated staff, our program and our unwavering mission to serve our warriors with dignity and respect is allowing these brave veterans a new life after battle. Service dogs save lives, pure and simple.”
Shari, a member of golf's notable Duval family, has been a woman of influence and veterans’ advocate for many years. When she began K9s For Warriors, the charity operated out of a small residential home. She was full of hope but limited on funding; however, that didn’t hold her back. The nonprofit quickly grew and since has experienced great success. K9s For Warriors has paired 386 service dogs (as of Dec 2017) to veterans battling military trauma.
“America has a national tragedy on its hands,” continues Duval. “We are losing over 20 veterans a day to suicide. K9s For Warriors is changing that. Our program teaches our warriors how to navigate the civilian world again not with fear, but with dignity and independence. Without our supporters, donors, and community, our program simply could not exist.”
Rory Diamond joined K9s For Warriors in 2015 and implemented a robust growth plan focusing on hiring additional staff, acquiring new donors, and establishing ground-breaking programs. Rory’s innovative leadership style enabled the organization to open a second kennel in late 2016 and to begin construction on an onsite, indoor training facility this year.
“Our organization has served hundreds of veterans who can attest that service dogs have improved their lives and overall health,” said Rory Diamond, CEO, K9s For Warriors. “We are providing a lifesaving gift to these heroes. Most of these veterans were unable to work, perform simple tasks, and even leave their homes prior to receiving service dogs. A transformation of healing occurs through each warrior-dog team that we pair. Our graduates return home able to rejoin their families, friends, and communities. Many go back to school, obtain new jobs, discover new passions, and even give back to others. That is priceless.”
Additionally, Rory has been an enduring force with creating awareness for the PAWS Act (a congressional bill that would require the VA to pay for service dogs) and with organizing a coalition of non-profit service dog providers for military veterans. He has also been determined to demonstrate the scientific link between service dogs and PTSD recovery, through case studies.
Shari Duval and Rory Diamond are two who believe the best life is one that is lived to serve others; they prove it by advocating for veterans, improving their local communities, and helping those in need. With so much heartache and devastation in the world, Duval and Diamond are genuine examples that people can still be well-intentioned and downright good.
Rory and Shari... thank you!