Utah native Matt Barber always wanted to be a part of something bigger than himself. Serving as an EMT for 15 years, a Spanish Fork city councilman for six and now as a bishop at a BYU student ward has helped him to achieve just that.
His greatest opportunity for service came with the creation of Hand in Hand Outdoors and its explosive growth.
Hand in Hand Outdoors, a non-profit organization based in Spanish Fork, takes veterans and disabled people out to enjoy the water in Utah on a boat made to accommodate wheelchairs.
The organization started with a lunch meeting between two friends who wanted to give back to the community.
Barber and fellow Utah native Cary Robarge met to discuss Captain Steve Henline’s idea to build a boat that would accommodate injured veterans. For Barber and Robarge, it was as simple as hearing and acting on a great opportunity.
The construction of the boat started with two 30-foot pontoons. Generous donations from businesses in the community allowed the work to be done quickly. Friends and strangers offered resources, labor and time as Henline worked. Barber said a miraculous chain of time and money donations put Freedoms Dream on the water.
“The first day it went out, we were worried whether it was going to float on those metal pontoons or whether the engine could move it. There’s not another boat like it, that’s designed for wheelchairs,” Barber said. “But it went perfectly. There was lots of support. People loved it.”
A nonprofit organization was created along with the boat. According to the website’s origin story, Hand in Hand Outdoors grew into more than just a service for veterans.
The mission statement expanded to include children and adults with disabilities who could benefit from a day of relaxation and fishing. Hand in Hand Outdoors reached out to other organizations to expand its reach.
“There would be no limits, aside being disabled, to those that Hand in Hand Outdoors would serve,” the website states.
Hand in Hand Outdoors has grown at an astounding rate since it started in 2013. The boat took out 400 people in its first six months on the water. Four boats are now stationed and operating at Flaming Gorge and Utah Lake.
According to Captain Steve Henline, the boats assist more than 700 disabled individuals every year. Recipients of the service are never charged.
Henline said in an email that Hand in Hand Outdoors was his way to give back.
“It is our way to thank our nation’s veterans who have given so much for our liberties and to share our love of the outdoors with the children who might never have a chance to catch a fish or be aboard a boat,” he said.
Testimonials from participants show the service has had a lasting impact both on those participating and those who work to keep Hand in Hand Outdoors operating.
One testimonial on the website from Vietnam veteran W. Long states that Hand in Hand Outdoors has provided him with peace in the four decades he’s been home from Vietnam.
“Those years have not been easy ones, but when I had the opportunity to be aboard your boat with fellow veterans things changed,” Long states on the website. “Life for me is better now, somehow I am at peace whenever I get the chance to come along. Thank you again.”
Captain Henline works to provide an environment for veterans where they can have a place to heal. He said in an email that his continued involvement has been an extraordinary experience.
“To be surrounded by those who through no part of their own struggle so greatly from wounds on the battlefield, accidents and insidious disease and (to) witness the change and healing the events we can provide is a truly remarkable experience,” he said.
Barber serves on the board of directors. He believes Hand in Hand Outdoors changed his life for good.
“What changes me is when I see these kids that would never ever have a chance otherwise going fishing,” Barber said. “It’s the same with veterans who are disabled and have been treated badly. They’re so happy after. That gives you a sense of the dream that it’s bigger than us.”
Barber hopes to see Hand in Hand Outdoors reach new heights. He believes they have an opportunity to “help so many people in so many ways.”
But the main focus of Barber’s efforts will continue to be the silent service that can change the lives of those who come to Hand in Hand Outdoors for healing.
“What I like the most about it is that the people that go out, they don’t know me,” Barber said. “I don’t want them to know. I’m not doing it for me. I just love it.”