We’re excited to introduce you to the always interesting and insightful Charla Truesdale. We hope you’ll enjoy our conversation with Charla below.
Hi Charla, thanks for joining us today. If you had a defining moment that you feel really changed the trajectory of your career, we’d love to hear the story and details.
My head has always been full of thoughts and ideas, and that certainly holds true for my inspiration in starting and leading Warrior Spirit Project. For years, I had tucked away, but occasionally revisited the idea of providing yoga classes for combat veterans with Post Traumatic Stress (PTS). I had been teaching yoga since 2001, starting at a local fitness center in Jacksonville, NC when 9/11 occurred. Most of my classes from 2002 forward were held on overseas U.S. military bases, but in those locations we still weren’t fully comprehending the effects of deployment on returning service members. I just felt like yoga would be helpful in some way and that I would need to create a special program or design for offering these classes to this particular population.
On a visit back to Jacksonville in 2007 to visit the dear friend who owned that fitness center, I needed to do some shopping. When I returned to the vehicle and was about to leave, I noticed a man walking up to my window, as if he wanted to speak with me. Of course, it felt a little unnerving at first, but my intuition told me to roll down my window and see what he had to say. As it turned out, he was one of the students in that first yoga class… a very quiet and solitary student who always practiced from the back of the room and never said a word before or after class. A friend had brought him there to offer support for some emotional struggles. He told me who he was and that he wanted me to know the class had helped him tremendously. He then suggested that I consider offering yoga to service members returning form Iraq and Afghanistan. He felt like it would help them as well. I was amazed, thanked him, and let those thoughts and ideas in my head resurface with new passion and resolve. When we said goodbye, I looked in my rear-view mirror to watch him walk away, but he was nowhere to be found.
It wasn’t until 2015 that these thoughts and ideas came to fruition in another defining moment. My husband and I were sitting on our back deck when this topic of yoga for veterans came up. I told him all that I had been thinking about, and that I even had a name picked out for the program. When he looked up the name online, he found that it had already been claimed by another fairly new organization that happened to train yoga teachers to offer trauma-informed yoga and meditation within the military culture. There was training coming up, so I registered. And there was no looking back after that, as everything quickly evolved from there for me and for Warrior Spirit Project. Before I even participated in the training, I was introduced to another veteran service organization who happened to be located nearby, and in an unannounced visit by me, our first yoga class was scheduled for the very next week.
Charla, before we move on to more of these sorts of questions, can you take some time to bring our readers up to speed on you and what you do?
I believe it is very important to stay open to possibilities and to never assume we know what our unfolding lives will look like. Early in our marriage, my husband accepted a federal job that moved us to a different location every 1-5 years. That made it a little more challenging for me to determine my own career path, until an opportunity arose for me to learn how to teach “aerobics”. Although I hesitated at first, I took a step of faith and fell in love with the whole health and fitness industry. This was something I could take anywhere, and it actually led to my own federal employment as a Fitness Coordinator on one of the overseas bases where we lived. Over the years, I had the opportunity to teach fitness classes and college classes, to train individual clients, to lead others in a variety of supervisory roles, to develop and conduct educational workshops, and eventually to go back to graduate school for an advanced degree in Health Education. I even became a Subject Matter Expert for the American Council on Exercise. All of those experiences prepared me for what I am doing today. Never did I imagine I would one day start a nonprofit organization, and even when I did start one, I had to learn a lot in a very short period of time. I’m still learning!
Our mission at Warrior Spirit Project is to “bolster purpose and strengthen the spirit of Veterans and First Responders (Warriors) through Yoga, Dogs and Dirt, offering tools for resilience, growth, and meaningful community engagement.” We do this as a 100% volunteer organization (including me), and just about everyone in our organization has a direct connection to the military or first responder community. Most have served or currently serve, or are family members (who also serve in BIG ways!) We don’t consider ourselves “do-gooders”. We consider ourselves family to all those we engage with our programs. Everything we do is free for them, except for the 200-hour Trauma-informed Yoga Teacher Training (YTT) that is directly aimed at helping warriors learn how to teach others in their own communities. We charge a very moderate tuition for this, with scholarship support and all training materials included. All tuition is put into an education and training fund to provide continuing education and advanced training for our volunteer yoga teachers, which includes some of our YTT graduates!
Any stories or insights that might help us understand how you’ve built such a strong reputation?
In the first few years, we put ourselves out there every chance we got! We were, and still are, always willing to collaborate with other organizations who serve the same population that we serve. Recognizing that each of us has something special and unique to offer, there has never been a need for competition or an attitude of self-preservation. Instead, we have chosen to focus on building relationships, trust, and curiosity about possibilities. We try to listen more than we “tell”, so that we can understand much more about the person on the other end of the conversation. I believe our repetition rests on the perception that we truly care and don’t pretend to have all of the answers.
Putting training and knowledge aside, what else do you think really matters in terms of succeeding in your field?
It is absolutely essential to care about other people and to have empathy… not sympathy… for their struggles. The warriors we work with don’t want sympathy. They want support in finding their own way, so the ability to empower them to access their own inner wisdom is extremely important. We are facilitators, not fixers. And I think that translates to just about every professional field in the world. It’s like the proverbial saying, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” We try to help the men and women we serve learn how to feed themselves well – physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. When they begin to recognize their own capabilities and feel successful using the tools we offer them, then Warrior Spirit Project has also succeeded.
- Website: https://warriorspiritproject.org
- Instagram: @warriorspiritproject
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/warriorspiritprojectdfw
- Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC1msjna2hFj3jl3pxCnqhGQ
J. Keith Emmons and Warrior Spirit Project