- C Johnston
Jim Skal & Outdoor Immersion: Serving Veterans
Updated: May 13, 2022
The transition from active armed services to civilian life is complicated and as unique as veterans themselves. But what’s common is that losing the structure and community they were used to while adapting their mindset to a new lifestyle is a huge deal.
Jim Skal of Beaver County, PA devotes his time and talents to helping veterans going through this through the non-profit organization he founded, Outdoor Immersion. Since 2014, Outdoor Immersion has focused most of its resources to helping veterans find their footing and renew their resilience.
“Outdoor Immersion is a Community Care Mission using outdoor activities to create connections of friendship, moving veterans from isolation to community and rebuilding resilience physically, mentally and spiritually,” sums up the website. The vision is to build “physical, mental, spiritual and social health and resilience through time and activity in God’s creation.”
So far, Outdoor Immersion has helped about 250 veterans, one life at a time.
The founder of Outdoor Immersion is a man of strong faith in God who married fellow Christian, Kristine, and raised four children. Jim and his wife are both graduates of Geneva College, a private Christian institution in Beaver Falls, PA. His children all attended Geneva, too. During his child-raising years, Jim’s focus was on serving the Lord through his marriage and parenting. He earned his living as a mortgage consultant.
Jim says that God planted the seed for Outdoor Immersion when he was listening to a sermon about calling. “The minister said, ‘You exist for a purpose. God created you and wove the desires of your heart into the person you are. Take stock of your passions to help discover your purpose.”
“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
- Ephesians 2:10
So he started thinking about his passions. The outdoors. Creation. Fitness. Running. Teaching. After he took stock, a plan started to take shape.
Jim took a group of urban youth camping through a local non-profit organization. Hiking, kayaking and relationship building topped the weekend’s to-do list and the results were encouraging. The kids loved the outdoor experience and reported that they learned more about nature, each other and God.
As Jim refined Outdoor Immersion, he also started focusing on veterans and military personnel. When he got connected to Veteran Service Organizations, awareness within the military community grew. Today, 99% of the work that Outdoor Immersion does is geared to helping veterans.
Brian Leek, one Marine who “returned to living” through the help of Jim Skal and Outdoor Immersion, explains that veterans return home feeling alone.
“The power of Outdoor Immersion is that veterans learn to understand God’s creation and that we’re here for each other. And for combat veterans – once we’ve been in combat, we can’t unsee it. Being exposed to God’s beauty is the same way. Once we see God, we can’t unsee that, either.”
The need is great for veterans to get the kind of help Outdoor Immersion provides, and vets can enter the program through a number of paths. Referrals come in from spouses, children, friends and other veterans. They come in from the VA and Veteran Service Organizations. Sometimes veterans get connected on their own. Vets also enter the program through the Veteran Treatment Courts, a legal arm which offers veterans encountering legal troubles the opportunity to get multi-pronged treatment as an alternative to time in jail.
In the case of a referral through the Veteran Treatment Courts, vets are required to follow their individual treatment plan and voluntary participation in Outdoor Immersion activities may be and is often suggested.
But they just don’t meet. They go hiking in publicly accessible, remote areas. Or canoeing, kayaking, trail running, fishing – participating in some activity that enables them to also engage in creation. And creation includes wind, rain, snow, birds and animals. Though almost all veterans start their relationship with Outdoor Immersion through one-on-one activities, group activities are provided to foster the camaraderie that they missed after the service while also increasing their relational connectivity.
Through it all, they talk about themselves. And what they are doing. And the pain points of their life. They also discuss steps they can take to get better. They discover someone who cares, someone who responds and helps, and someone they can trust. The viewpoint is decidedly Christian and they hear about a God who loves them unconditionally and sacrificially.
The purpose of Outdoor Immersion is, “To bridge gaps of relationship, duty and service between the Veteran and Civilian cultures and creating beneficial life habits that rebuild and reinforce foundations of resilience. As we enter into relationship with a veteran, we seek to fulfill our duty to help shoulder the burdens they carry and be sure their vital needs are met.”
Brian Leek was one of the veterans who came into Outdoor Immersion through Veteran’s Court. He said that Jim was there to meet him when he was on trial for a series of charges, including violent criminal assault. At the time, he was in a bad way, and addicted to drugs and alcohol.
Brian explains, “Jim came from a loving perspective, as a friend. His approach was completely different from other people, even those who were well intentioned.” The relationship had some starts and stops, but continued for years and had a tremendous impact on Brian.
“He has an accepting way that made me lean into him when I really needed connection. I needed help. By getting me to go for a walk, a hike, a run, Jim took that love into the darkness and helped me to gain a new perspective through nature.” Today, Brian participates in endurance events such as marathons and cross-country biking. He earned his bachelor’s degree and is a mechanical engineer. His faith in Christ is revitalized and he now regularly participates in Bible studies.
He is also now himself an Outdoor Immersion operator and mission facilitator in Washington County. He goes into the same Veteran’s Court where he once stood on trial. He reaches out to help other veterans, one at a time, and shares the transformative power of God that Jim shared with him.
For seven years Jim Skal was the sole Outdoor Immersion operator working with veterans. The year of 2022 saw Help (yes, that’s a capital H!) come Jim’s way with eight additional operators, including six veterans and two civilians stepping up to help the program.
And Jim has ideas for additional ways to grow, which means additional ways to help veterans.
For a couple of years, Jim ran an Inside-Out Immersion at the Veteran’s Pod of the Allegheny County Jail. The veterans couldn’t leave to immerse themselves in nature, but Jim could bring nature to them, so that’s what he did. He used technology to show and share creation with veterans as he built relationships with them. The program was working well, but COVID hit and the program had to be halted. He sees value in starting it up again, if possible.
Another program with exciting potential is REBOOT Recovery. Jim is looking to partner with the organization that offers a 12-week course for a group of combat veterans and their families. The vets in this program along with their spouses meet while the children have their own activity. The test program they’re currently running is having positive results.
“This has tremendous potential,” Jim expressed. “One man revealed that he’s been carrying a very heavy load in his wheel barrow, and REBOOT Recovery is helping him to unload it. We’re all called to forgive others. But the bad guys these veterans faced were really bad. The man didn’t feel the need to forgive them – so he was carrying a load of bitterness. This is a safe space where he’s learning to unload.” Jim expects Outdoor Immersion to offer REBOOT Recovery in September.
And potential expansion of Outdoor Immersion, through multiple locations? Women’s programs if there is a female veteran operator? Jim is open to the idea but says it will happen only if God wants it to happen. The Outdoor Immersion model is relational and long term. Duplicating it or expanding it wouldn’t be easy, but Jim notes that all things are possible through God.
A veteran returning home often feels alone. Jim Skal says that with Outdoor Immersion, it is Jesus who welcomes them home.
To refer a veteran, volunteer or donate to Outdoor Immersion, go to https://outdoorimmersion.org.