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A place where military families can unwind


By Alicia Banks

A one-time horse farm in the Arran Lakes area of Fayetteville has transformed into a woodsy park providing respite and recreation for military service members, their families and their friends.

In its fourth year, Rick’s Place continues to grow, adding activities and improvements to its 55-acre site.

“We work really hard to think about every family member of every age – how they can enjoy a fun experience with their family that gets them into nature and doesn’t cost anything,” said Allegra Jordan, executive director of the Rick Herrema Foundation, which operates Rick’s Place.

While there will be a cost for weekly summer camps at the park – a new offering this year – nearly all of its other events are free, from Nerf gun battles to horse rides to community dinners made with ingredients picked from a community garden on the property. Other activities and offerings include playgrounds, a shed filled with outdoor toys, swings, a zip line for kids, a walking trail and fishing along Beaver Creek. A cornhole tournament is planned in July.

The park is open daily from dawn to dusk. About 400 people visit each month.

Rick’s Place, and the Rick Herrema Foundation, are named for a Special Operations Command soldier who was killed in Baghdad in 2006 during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Twenty-seven-year-old Rick Herrema, promoted posthumously to sergeant first class, wasn’t able to fulfill his dream of one day marrying and having children.

But the Michigan native made a major impact on many people who still remember his dedication to family, friends and others. Herrema was the soldier working on a friend’s car that needed repairs. He was the one who hired a limousine for his sisters Kate and Janie to ride in to prom, Kate Herrema remembered. He was the one who purchased a Las Vegas vacation one year for his parents, Dick and Mary. Herrema was stationed at Fort Bragg.

“He was generous with his time, willing to help anybody out who needed help,” Kate said. “He never bragged about himself. We [my family] would find things out about Rick by what he accomplished through other people.”

The idea for Rick’s Place and the Rick Herrema Foundation arose mainly from soldiers who had served with Herrema and others touched by his personality and generous spirit. They asked Herrema’s family for permission to create a nonprofit foundation in Rick’s name that would support military families and help them relieve stress and reconnect after deployments.

“He would feel a little embarrassed that this was named for him, and he wouldn’t feel worthy,” Kate Herrema said, pausing to wipe away tears. “But I feel a lot of pride that he was a person so memorable to so many people that they would want to create this to get his name and legacy out to more people. A lot of people have been impacted by the way he chose to live.”

The foundation raised money to buy the park site and continues to raise money to develop its facilities and programs. It also relies on help from volunteers. During monthly work days, volunteers tackle such tasks as clearing debris, building fences and tending the flower garden where blooms, such as lilies and gladiolas, can be cut and taken home as gifts for a loved one. Rick’s Place also holds monthly “fun” days.

“Rick’s friends wanted to address a significant problem in service members’ lives: reintegration after war,” Jordan said. “If we use Rick’s example and his spirit to reintegrate into society in healthy ways, this was the inspiration for it.”

Plenty has been done. More is planned or in the works. A gravel parking lot should be finished in July. The wooden skeleton of a future wood-working shop stands next to the foundation’s main office, located in a cozy two-story home. Nearby, there’s land that may be used one day for a corral – or for paintball fights.

Jordan pointed to a wood kiosk, recently created by a volunteer, which houses books that people can borrow on the honor system. She then paused and looked up at the trees all around. “Listen to the birds,” she said. “And this is in the middle of Fayetteville.” With its natural surroundings and its focus on relaxation and fun, Rick’s Place provides military families a place for magical moments, she said.

One day in late May, a group of children arrived at Rick’s Place to participate in Messy Monday. The activity, funded through a private grant and offered in the spring and fall, allows children to create art projects with a variety of materials. On this day, they used glue, salt and bright dye to create art pieces composed of splotches, shapes and even their names. Smiles and giggles abounded.

Activities like these are why Mary Katzenberger comes to Rick’s Place with her 5-year-old son Tristan. Katzenberger, a sergeant first class in the 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne), has endured two combat deployments to Iraq. Last year she heard about Rick’s Place, which was hosting adult and youth competitions on “American Ninja Warrior” style obstacle courses. The foundation drew a crowd for its “American Ninja Warrior” obstacle courses for adults and youth; Darren Jeffrey, an executive with the company that produces the TV show’s obstacle courses, serves on the board of the Herrema foundation.

“That was fun for me but most important, for my son,” Katzenberger said.

Katzenberger has been grappling with a recent divorce, becoming a single parent and sharing custody of Tristan with his father. The tighter financial situation worried her until Rick’s Place. Tristan rode a horse for the first time during a monthly “fun” day. It was free.

“Being a military parent is challenging just like any kind of parenting is,” Katzenberger said. “You’ll miss months out of your child’s life, and it can be a hard pill to swallow as a mother. For me, the time I do have here with my son where we can make memories every time, you can’t put a value on that. Rick’s Place is a place he wants to go back to.”

Katzenberger shows her appreciation by volunteering on work days and taking professional-quality pictures for the foundation.

“When you’re a military family, you’re transplanted from your real family and friends and hope to be a part of a family wherever you end up,” she said. “When I go to Rick’s Place, they remember my name and my son’s. It feels like going home every time I attend an event.”

Herrema’s family also visits Rick’s Place and Dick Herrema, Rick’s father, serves on the foundation’s board. In April, Mary Herrema and members of her church and another church in Michigan came to Rick’s Place to participate in a work day. They helped build a stage on the grounds and clear land. That day, Mary Herrema met a military wife with seven children. Upon learning Mary Herrema’s identity, the woman asked Mary for a hug and thanked her for the park. The moment stuck with Mary Herrema. Her church has since “adopted” the family and plans to send the children birthday gifts and handwritten cards.

“In my mind, they always say God has things happen in your life for a reason,” Mary Herrema said, saying those seven children are the grandkids she won’t have from Rick. “I see the good that has come out of Rick’s Place and the families enjoying themselves. I see that horrible day [Rick’s death] has meant something good.”

There’s no sign Rick’s Place will slow down. The park’s offerings have expanded each year and more people find their way there.

“The response of the people that come to the park shows Rick’s Place addresses a very real need,” Jordan said. “The Herremas so generously shoulder their own experiences and give hope to other families about how to recover from war. ‘Family’ is defined as the sphere of relationships the soldier calls home. It may not be their biological family, but friends and others who give them support and relationships.”

To learn more about the Rick Herrema Foundation and Rick’s Place, visit https://www.rhfnow.org/rsvp. You can also learn more about upcoming Work and Fun Days, special events and how to help and donate.