Name: Shelly Kirkland
Location: Dallas, Texas
Occupation: CEO, Boot Campaign
Shelly, today you lead a successful nonprofit (which we will hear about soon), but what did your journey look like leading up to your switch from corporate America to nonprofit leadership?
After working for Fox’s America’s Most Wanted producing crime stories in Washington, D.C., I moved to Dallas in 2007 and joined The Richards Group. This is where I discovered that non-profit work is my passion and makes my heart sing. At the agency, one of my clients was UT Dallas’ Center for BrainHealth, and I quickly became captivated by the brain and how scientists were working to unravel the mysteries of the mind for so many. Soon, I left agency life to join the Center for BrainHealth full time.
During my nearly eight years there, several scientists received funding from the Department of Defense to study brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder in post 9/11 veterans. As part of recruiting for those studies, I met several veterans who changed the course of my career and my life. These were folks who were my age who were quite literally putting their life on the line for me. And doing it selflessly. Courageously. Without question.
It was humbling. It made me proud, and it made me determined to commit my career to serving those who ensure that our country, our friends and our families are safe, protected and free.
Today you are the CEO of Boot Campaign. Tell us more about the mission, and why it is so close to your heart.
Since 2017, I’ve had the privilege to help lead Boot Campaign’s mission to unite Americans to honor and restore the lives of veterans and military families through individualized, life-improving programs. We do this by showing gratitude for those who sign their name on a dotted line to protect and defend the United States and asking Americans to lace up the most visible sign of military service: combat boots. More than 500 celebrities and influencers, as well as thousands of civilian patriots, have donned the symbolic footwear to say, “Thank you for your service,” by purchasing boots through our website, bootcampaign.org.
Boot Campaign's Health and Wellness program, built on the principles of providing holistic care and working to identify the root cause of hidden wounds of war, delivers personalized treatment plans to veterans and their families with diverse health challenges connected to Post-traumatic Stress and/or Traumatic Brain Injury, as well as addressing trauma-based insomnia, chronic pain, substance abuse, nutrition and fitness.
For those that served the USA and the trauma many faced during their service, taking steps to support them above and beyond awareness is a must. The You Matter campaign gives 100% of funds raised to support veterans seeking the care they deserve so suicide doesn’t seem like the only option.
We know that mental health is critical for thriving human beings. What has your personal journey with your mental health looked like?
There are some difficult and, some would say, traumatic experiences from my early years that have been etched in my memory. These childhood events became permanently engraved on my heart, helped shape my identity, and directed me down life's paths. I myself have struggled with anxiety and depression. My psychotherapist labeled it as PTSD.
It has taken years of being purposeful and taking proactive steps forward to get to the root cause of the issue, including therapy, self-care, awareness and reflection, along with getting to know what behooves my personal well-being. For me, getting regular, quality sleep is paramount. I try to average no less than seven hours a night. Physical exercise also gives me a release and gets my endorphins going. I see a therapist regularly, connect with friends and do work that gives me a sense of purpose. I also take a low-dose antidepressant. Sure, I have bad days, bad weeks even, but I feel well-equipped with the skills, knowledge and abilities to take back control of my mental health. It starts with me.
The military might not be top of mind for as many people as it was in past generations. Why do you think it's important for women in our generation who might not be close to someone in the military to pay attention? And what can we do to help?
Freedom is not a concept. It’s a commitment. And for the brave men and women that are serving and have served our great country, their commitment is clear for all to see. Yet, for the rest of us – how committed are we to them? How do we show our respect for their service and sacrifice? Though many stories concerning our Armed Forces have proliferated our social media feeds and news channels, how many of us move beyond a cursory read?
I want all Americans to know more about our military -- the less than 1% who lace up their boots, bid friends and families farewell and walk boldly into hostility to protect our rights to work, play and live as we please, each and every day.
I ask you to say thank you to a veteran. Ask them about their service; why they joined the Armed Forces, the lessons they learned that they still carry with them and the friends they made. Ask them about their families who endured deployments, often worrying for their loved ones’ safety while holding down the home front. We owe it to all members of the Armed Forces and the more than 18 million veterans who call America home, to "live laced up" as we say at Boot Campaign in support of their service and sacrifice while they wear the uniform and when they take it off and return to civilian life. Join our movement to make a meaningful difference in the lives of military and veteran families at bootcampaign.org.
Changing gears for just a minute, many people outside the nonprofit sector have misconceptions that the work is easier. What's the real truth for someone who might want to pivot into nonprofit?
Nonprofit work is not for the faint of heart; the hours are long, and often, the dollars are less. Many times, there are fewer people wearing many hats to steward donor dollars well, working well outside of traditional job description roles. And then there is the crux of what I've found to be wholly accurate in my experience: Working in a non-profit means you can't separate work from life because, as a colleague recently shared, "you're dealing with human beings and they will find a way into your heart." For me, though, while nonprofit is certainly full of challenges, it is also oh so rewarding. Working in the nonprofit sector gave me a purpose to believe in and fueled my passion to make a difference in the lives of others.
In all of your experience working in mental health, and now with our US veterans, what has been the greatest lesson you have learned?
I may not have been to a war zone, seen combat or served in the Armed Forces, but we are all human with experiences that shape who we are today. Mental health and wellness is not a quick fix or a simple pill to swallow. It takes work, hard work; work that I know firsthand. But, just like anything in life, putting in the work leads to tremendous reward and freedom from things that may be holding us back. As a Navy SEAL once told me, "Don't let your memories become bigger than your dreams. You have to keep your eyes ahead on the horizon to set a foundation for the future."
Finally, what can we do to reduce the stigma around mental health?
Probably most importantly is talking about our mental health challenges instead of holding them in and keeping them secret. I'm a huge advocate of therapy and see it as a sign of strength and health to talk things out with an objective third party.
My hope is that one day there is not stigma associated with seeking help, therapy and care for mental health challenges. I hope that a diagnosis is seen not as a mental weakness, nor is it seen as a permanent label. I want everyone to know that our brain changes and can even heal over the course of your lifetime given the right interventions and environment. If you break your arm, would you ask for qualified help to address the issue? I want people to think of mental health issues in the same way. We cannot diagnose, treat and heal most of our physical ailments, and we cannot tackle mental health issues on our own. Asking for help is not easy, but there is benefit in taking the first step of asking for assistance. We each have a choice to be the victim of our mental health woes or the victor who overcomes daunting obstacles.
Anything else you want to share with us?
America is protected by an all volunteer force. Some veterans return home from service different than when they left. Some scarred physically; some scarred mentally. All certainly changed. My encounters with them, in turn, changed me. Four years ago, I felt stuck professionally and wanted a new challenge. Despite several positions I was presented, the door always closed before I could cross the threshold. So, I started a 40-day prayer journey, and on day 40, I received an offer from Boot Campaign; it's been a privilege and honor.
A question we ask everyone...what do you want to be known for?
I want to be remembered as someone who cares deeply about people, loves freely and gives generously, and lives transparently with authenticity. I want folks to remember that I made them feel good about themselves and feel empowered to do whatever it is they want to do in their own life.
My favorite quote is...
“Every time I witness a strong person, I want to know: ‘What dark did you conquer in your story?’ Mountains do not rise without earthquakes.”
Powerful, right? We all have winding roads in life that lead us to present day. Our roads are rarely smooth or straight. But oftentimes it’s in the process of traveling a route full of potholes, steep hills and rough terrain that we develop a passion to help and serve others. And, that has been my experience.