Jefferson Award Winners Founded Ranchin' VetsBy Allen Martin

MARIN COUNTY (KPIX 5) Military personnel coming home from active duty can sometimes face big challenges getting back into ‘regular’ life. It’s a situation this week’s Jefferson Award winners, and married couple, Kevin and Corey Downs have some personal experience with, and have found a way to help.

It all started after Kevin Downs’ brother, Captain Phil Downs, returned from Afghanistan. The Downs couldn’t help but notice the struggles the Marine faced adjusting to civilian life. Kevin and Corey both wanted to help but didn’t know how. Then the couple came up with a great idea. During college, Kevin Downs had been a ranch hand on a ranch in West Marin, and he loved it. Working outdoors, learning trades like welding, even the art of saddling a horse, all appealed to his sense of adventure. So Downs and his wife Corey started to wonder, would former active duty military personnel enjoy working on ranches as well?

“You could tell that it obviously was not an easy transition going from combat immediately back to civilian life,” said Kevin Downs. “If being outdoors and working with animals who don’t judge you, who don’t care who you are and that gives you peace than we are happy to do that job.”

So Ranchin’ Vets was born. In four years the non-profit has served thirty Veterans statewide. The Downs’ say the experience of hard work, fresh air, and responsibility have really helped veterans like Justin Heard. When the former Marine, who also saw combat in Afghanistan, found out about Ranchin’ Vets, he said he thought ‘why not’? So for a little more than a year now, Heard has been a working ranch hand at the Koopmann Ranch in Sunol. Being outside every day quickly became a joy for Heard after a stab at office work.

“I was cooped up in a building and being, you know, being in the Marines and the infantry I am used to constantly go go go on the move, just constantly working,” explained Heard. “When I am out here it doesn’t really feel like work.”

And Corey Downs is quick to point out the non-profit has been able to help Veterans in other ways.

“By kind of steering them in the right direction into organizations that could help them,” said Downs. “With what their next step might be or what their ultimate goal is in whatever path they want to follow.”

It’s an approach that Koopmann Ranch owner Clayton Koopmann wholeheartedly approves of, and he says hiring Heard was a no-brainer.

“I think it is a huge opportunity for them to come out and work in an environment that they feel comfortable in,” said Koopmann. “And work with people that they feel comfortable with.”

Finding comfort in helping Veterans also suits Kevin and Corey Downs. And it is not the only way this couple gives back to the community. While Corey runs Ranchin’ Vets full-time, Kevin is a San Francisco Police Officer. He was shot and seriously wounded while on the job back in 2016, and has just recently returned to full time duty. Still, Kevin says it’s his work with the Veterans that really has his heart.

“When we started this whole thing we always said if we help one Vet we’re a success,” said Kevin. “But we have been able to do much more than that.”

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