This past June 14 – 17, SOWF welcomed high school students from across the nation to Florida for our annual Education Planning Information Conference, in short: Operation E.P.I.C.
This year, we were fortunate to gather in person. Typically, the group meets at the University of Tampa however in 2021, 21 high school students and four Mentors (all SOWF graduates), connected at the Sheraton Sand Key Resort on Clearwater Beach. A big thanks to Apogee Engineering for their generous donation of hotel rooms, which allowed our students to experience E.P.I.C. in a beachside setting.
The week kicked off with MG (Ret) Clay Hutmacher, President and CEO of SOWF, who provided an insightful overview to the students. Following his opening remarks, Senior Director of Programs, Edie Rosenthal, had the students play The Marshmallow Game, and while the concept may seem easy, it was more difficult than it looked!
Peter Van Buskirk, founder of “Best College Fit,” which is an informative program that encompasses a variety of high school and college-related useful applications, detailing best practices and transitional access to post-secondary educations through healthy, productive, and student-centered solutions to college planning, was the keynote speaker for the week. As a retired College Admissions Officer, he shared important details regarding the college admissions process, specifically focusing on the art of crafting essays, resumes and determining appropriate class load. The core message centered around the process and what practical steps to take to enter the college of their choice, looking ahead also to career paths.
Keni Thomas, a former Army Ranger, who fought in Operation Gothic Serpent in Mogadishu, Somalia, commonly known as “Black Hawk Down, is now a motivational speaker and country music artist. Keni inspired the group by sharing his story, while encouraging each student to pursue their respective dreams and aspirations. He then concluded his segment by playing a few of his songs, including: “Not Me” and “Another Mexico.” Keni also brought his personal and PAWfect addition to E.P.I.C., service dog, Key.
To unwind after a day full of interactive learning, the students, mentors, speakers and staff collectively enjoyed an outdoor dinner highlighted by a full view of the beautiful Gulf of Mexico.
On Day Two, local finance managers, Engozi & Anica Burrows, assigned each student a job and a location, and they had to create budgets based on their income. They were surprised to learn how much an apartment in Downtown Manhattan costs!
SOWF Ambassador, Author, Speaker, Voice Over Actor and Retired US Army Sergeant Major, Matt Drayton, closed out the evening by talking to the students about the importance of dreaming big, the opportunities that will arise as they near the end of high school and the impact the relationships they develop in college will have on their futures. Matt also touched on how important it is to monitor what you are doing and saying on social media, and how it is your responsibility to be accountable for the things that you do and the decisions you make online.
Day Three consisted of Jimmy and Liddie Palumbo, Founders of PivitU, discussing how to build your own personal brand. Students learned about the importance of networking and having a LinkedIn page, and how it is not always about what you know, but who you know.
The closing of Day Three was beyond EPIC for our students. The Clearwater Police Department provided our students with a police escort to the Seminole Marina, where our students were greeted by Dunedin American Legion Post 275, Heart Strings for Heroes and Tampa Homeless Outreach. Freedom Boat Club of Tampa Bay then provided boat rides to Caladesi Island, where our students got the opportunity to learn about the history of the island and had time to explore.
On their final day, students had an opportunity to hear from David Humphrey & Alexandra Laundry, two Admissions Officers at the University of Tampa. Since the inception of Operation EPIC, at least one student from the training has matriculated to the University of Tampa.
Doug Rich, Chief of Staff at K-Force, spoke to the students about the trends happening in careers as we have ventured into the “work-from-home” movement, and talked in depth about how to stand out in a stack full of resumes. K-Force is a partner of Special Operations Warrior Foundation, and we are so grateful that they support our students by assisting them with career placement after graduation.
Finally, the EPIC Awards Dinner was hosted at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Students explored the aquarium, and had the chance to meet two movie stars: Winter and Hope, stars of “Dolphin Tale 2.” COL (Ret) Sean Corrigan, Executive VP of SOWF, and Doug Rich, Chief of Staff at K-Force, closed out the awards ceremony and presented the EPIC Graduates with their certificates.
Operation EPIC was so much more than just a college planning conference. Many new meaningful friendships were formed between the students attending. Thank you to all the individuals and organizations who participated in making this event happen. Based on your generosity and involvement, SOWF is able to provide a practical, constructive, and EPIC college planning conference experience for our students!