Helping out our heroes

Veterans build trailer skirts while getting an education

I am now old enough and wise enough to know the effects of war on a soldier, even though I have never been one myself. A decade of war, of seeing friends go to foreign lands, will do that to you. The lessons we, as a nation, learned from 9/11 have changed my perspective on life. Terrorism, be it foreign or domestic, in all its ugly forms is now a very real part of our lives. It is no longer something we see on the news; we now see it in our streets. The Boston Marathon attack reinforced that.

Only in the last few years has this country started to recognize the devastation that a decade of war has taken on the body, mind and soul of each of our heroes.

So it is with pride that a trio of men in Springdale, AR, created a nonprofit corporation dedicated to helping returning veterans. That corporation, known as Sustainable Aerodynamic Concepts (SA Concepts), is not a typical nonprofit relying solely on the generosity of others simply for survival. Despite having zero experience in the trucking industry, Don Vanhooser (executive director), his son Drake (vice president of sales & marketing), and Jon Hamlin (vice president and general counsel) decided that to do the good they so wanted to accomplish, they needed a revenue source. That source is the AeroSmart trailer skirt.

“My dad owns a facilities maintenance company,” Drake Vanhooser told me recently. “He saw a lot of trailers on the road with skirts and thought he could make skirts. ... We’re saving fuel, helping veterans, and helping the environment.”

SA Concepts uses the funds from the sale of skirts to reinvest in the veterans. Right now, the extent of that help is with employment. Vanhooser told me the company employs six veterans each making $40,000 a year for 25 hours of work per week. To be employed by the company, the veteran must be enrolled in school, and employment with SA Concepts comes to an end three months following graduation. Vanhooser says the idea is to provide each veteran, many of whom have spouses and/or children, with a livable wage while they further their education and prepare to enter the workforce permanently.

Vanhooser notes that while most of the veterans have access to education through the GI Bill, “by the time they come back, it’s oftentimes not feasible for them to get a part-time job and get an education.”

With SA Concepts, the veterans work to produce the AeroSmart, which recently received its SmartWay certification. The skirt itself is somewhat unique in that it is produced almost entirely from recycled materials. SA Concepts uses donated trailers to build the skirts. “We’re basically reusing the entire side of the trailer,” Vanhooser says. “We can make seven sets of skirts with each trailer, and we also use the wood floor to make furniture.”

Vanhooser says the business plan calls for the nonprofit to be self-sustaining through sales of the skirts and furniture. Future goals include hiring counselors to provide career and post-traumatic stress disorder counseling, and the possibility of creating housing trusts to provide free or discounted housing for veterans working for the business while they attend school.

“We’re really not trying to compete with the skirting manufacturers. It’s really for the veterans,” Vanhooser points out. And given the growing popularity of skirts these days, there should be enough business out there to support SA Concepts’ goals.

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