Swamp Apes Demonstrates Macro Practice to Social Work Students

On Friday, Oct. 11, the Swamp Apes visited Dr. Manisha Joshi’s macro social work practice class.  The class comprises one section of first-year master’s level students in the School of Social Work of the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences at USF Tampa. Dr. Joshi’s class was joined by Professor Ruth Power’s macro practice section.  The Swamp Apes, headed by Tom Rahill, engages veterans of the United States Armed Forces to regain purpose in their lives post-combat, by channeling their energies and sense of mission into service to the Florida wilderness areas.  Their area of focus includes the Everglades National Park. The actual “Swamp Apes” concept began to take shape in the summer of 2008. The full concept, name, and direction were determined on April 29th, 2009.

Leading the Swamp Apes is not Tom Rahill’s first volunteer experience. According to him, he has always respected and loved service and the outdoors, beginning as a Boy Scout in his youth. When the Vietnam War began, he longed to serve his country, but he was too young to serve. He also longed for opportunities to give back to the veterans for the sacrifices which they and their families had made.

While newly married, in the 1980’s, Rahill volunteered at Center One, an organization which was involved in mitigating the impact of HIV/AIDS in south Florida. At Center One, he donated his time, equipment and skills as a telecommunications specialist to support the fledging organization. Later, while his daughter was in middle school, he volunteered with Principia Science Club so as to serve as a chaperone for her and her peers. Together, they embarked on trips to the Peace River, the Dry Tortugas and other nature sites. Fast forward to 2008 when Florida was hit with a severe budget cut and his wife, USF’s own Dr. Guitele Rahill, took a faculty position at Arkansas State University. According to Rahill, the nearly-1000 mile distance between them left him at a loss. He knew he needed to do something to endure the large stretches of time between the rare visits that he and his wife could enjoy. He also longed to contribute to the reintegration of veterans into society.

Soldiers returning from tours of duty often lack a sense of purpose and normalcy in life because their routine has been severely disrupted and because they have endured severe, recurrent and cumulative trauma.

“The solution,” Rahill started, “was the Swamp Apes.” The motto of the Swamp Apes is “Endure, Evolve, Achieve."  Describing the mission of the Swamp Apes, Rahill stated, “We are dedicated to serving veterans through serving the wilderness.”

The Swamp Apes provides these veterans the opportunity to be involved in clearing trails, in kayaking and in hiking trails.  In the Everglades, the Swamp Apes have also been involved in removing invasive species such as Brazilian peppers and pythons.

Rahill maintains that starting the Swamp Apes gave him the opportunity to do what he had long dreamed of: serving his country while giving back to the veterans. It also helped keep him from grieving the separation from his wife so much.

Rahill brought the Swamp Apes from an idea to a realization between 2008 and 2009. To share his message and purpose, Rahill visited several veterans’ organizations, including the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP), the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), and the Disabled American Veterans (DAV). Among them, the DAV emerged as the most enthusiastic to help Rahill get this program started: “Those same Vietnam veterans, who didn’t have that welcoming back experience, said ‘Wow! What a great idea! Let’s help you’ and they jumped on board,” said Rahill.

A chapter of the DAV in Pompano Beach connected him to the Miami VA Hospital. There, he met with individuals who worked in the recreational therapy department, who first accompanied him to the field and then agreed to invite some veterans along. Today, the Swamp Apes has one civilian and three full-time veterans who are active volunteers and participants. Hundreds of others, civilian and veteran volunteers alike, participate on a part-time basis. These volunteers have been actively involved in removing a particularly interesting invasive species in the Everglades. Rahill and the Swamp Apes have also contributed their services to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation and to the South Florida Water Management District.

“In the course of the trail clearing, I got involved with the python eradication program and that stuck with me.  I thought this was a great context for returning veterans who had lost some of the structure they’d had during their tour of duty, and for whom the trauma they had endured could at times impact their self-confidence,” said Rahill.

Being involved in python eradication in the Everglades has given Rahill and some of the Swamp Apes the opportunity to be featured on Discovery channel’s television show, “How Do They Do It.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uYcx62Gy-Tg&feature=youtu.be)

Swamp Apes is the founding chapter of the Volunteer Wilderness Alliance. Rahill has hopes that the Swamp Apes and the Volunteer Wilderness Alliance will achieve non-profit organization status in 2014.  Giving the organization its official name allows for expansion to other regions where creation of additional chapters is possible. This is a primary goal because since its inception, the Swamp Apes’ expenses have been funded solely out-of-pocket by Rahill.

“When I travel, I engage local veterans groups and park officials to see if they may be interested in future participation,” said Rahill.

The organization has encountered a few road blocks related to expanding its services. A lot of future endeavors rely on this organization achieving non-profit status. This is necessary in order to attract donors and to actively engage in fundraising efforts.

Building relationships with universities is also on Rahill’s list of priorities for the organization. The University of Florida currently studies the invasive species that the Swamp Apes captures. Though they are not an integral formal partner as of yet, Rahill hopes that UF’s oversight responsibilities will be extended to include them in the future.

With the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in such close proximity, the University of South Florida in Tampa contributes to the well-being of veterans, affording counseling and therapy related to post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. Rahill feels that the wealth of expertise at USF is a potential source of skilled professionals and student interns who can assist in tracking the experiences of veterans in the Swamp Apes program.  Together with Rahill’s experience and leadership, contributions from USF health and mental health experts can maximize the success of the Swamp Apes.

Partnering with universities not only gives this program the opportunity to expand its efforts and increase its technological innovations, but also gives the veterans an opportunity to become involved in academic pursuits, furthering the idea of regaining purpose in their lives again.

The Swamp Apes and the Volunteer Wilderness Alliance are not restricted to able-bodied individuals. Thanks to Swamp Ape Barry Offenburger’s recent donation of a "Zoom Chair" (an off-road vehicle wheelchair that will allow Rahill to bring amputees, and other severely injured Veterans into the Everglades), veterans with varying mobility issues will now be able to become part of the team. Aside from clearing trails and helping with python eradication, the Swamp Apes is also advocating for wheelchair-friendly navigation through the Everglades that will enable veterans of varying mobility to participate.

Dr. Joshi saw the Swamp Apes organization as an opportunity to provide her students with some real-life insight into how ideas become non-profit service agencies as a complement to conceptual classroom discussion. Macro practice engages individuals by working with diverse communities and neighborhoods, at-risk populations, and also focuses on the creation of organizations and how they manage their resources including volunteers; it also involves networking with different agencies, and resolving funding issues.

“All of those are social work macro concepts that we teach in this course and there could not have been a better group to talk about it than the Swamp Apes. It just seemed like a perfect combination of bringing the concepts of macro practice to reality for students and to encourage them to think outside of the box,” said Dr. Joshi.

This organization also seemed like a perfect fit for the social work students to learn from, as a few of them are the spouses of veterans or are veterans themselves. Paris Taylor is among this group.

As a wife and sister of combat soldiers, Taylor found value in what the Volunteer Wilderness Alliance is trying to achieve.

“My husband retired with 26 years in special operations and my younger brother is currently active duty. Throughout this time I have never heard of a program that facilitates such a unique debriefing process for service members returning from war. I not only think the Swamp Apes initiative is important; I feel that it is absolutely necessary for our struggling veterans,” said Taylor.

For Dr. Joshi, the organization’s unique start and unique way of helping others brought to light the importance of sharing this form of macro practice with her students.

“I just thought that it was a great example of macro practice, advocacy and so many concepts that we talk about in class. They do great work and [Rahill] has the passion for it. It was just absolutely fabulous to see the veterans open up about how being part of this organization has helped them in multiple ways,” said Dr. Joshi.

Many local and regional newspapers including the Miami Herald have reported on the Swamp Apes’ work in improving the health of veterans who volunteer with them. Please see: “Swamp Apes group gives war veterans missions in the Everglades” – Miami Herald (http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/05/23/3411388/swamp-apes-group-gives-war-veterans.html#storylink=cpy)

Veterans involved in the project were on hand to answer any questions the students had and to provide comments throughout the presentation.

“I loved seeing the happiness expressed by the veterans who visited our class today. I am glad they were able to find a fulfilling role within Swamp Apes,” said Janet Allen.

Even though this may not be within their areas of interest, students expressed interest in volunteering for this kind of organization.

 “I’m not particularly interested in macro practice, but I think volunteering for an organization like this would be great,” said Kayla Olson.

Students at the presentation left feeling hopeful for the future of veterans once they return home from active duty.

“I appreciate the devotion and attention Mr. Rahill has put on the Post -traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury (PTSD and TBI) epidemics. Not only do we need more research conducted, we also need more programs like the Swamp Apes to reciprocate even in part for the ultimate sacrifice that they have made for their country,” said Taylor.

For more information on the Swamp Apes, check out their fascinating Facebook® page at: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Swamp-Apes/575461175799950