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Freedom River gets $5 million from new Michigan budget

The $81.7 billion 2023-24 state budget which Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed into law on Monday includes $5 million for the Freedom River project, a comprehensive outdoor recreation center for veterans and their families located in Livingston County.

Located on 93 acres on the Huron River and Gut Lake, Freedom River is designed to assist in the re-assimilation of U.S. military service members, veterans and their families by providing outdoor recreation experiences that promote physical and mental wellbeing, foster a sense of belonging, and provide opportunities for personal growth and skill development.

“Every aspect of Freedom River will be intentional,” said Janna Yeakey, executive director of Freedom River and wife of the Director of Operations and U.S. Army veteran Jeff Yeakey. “We want to create the most effective environment for veterans and their families to improve their overall wellbeing and relationships so it has a lasting positive impact on their lives.”

Jeff Yeakey is a veteran of the 10th Mountain Division who was called back for active duty in support of Operation Desert Storm. He received his bachelor’s degree in exercise physiology from Michigan State University, thanks to the G.I. Bill and Army College Fund, and worked in the Physical Medicine and Rehab Department at the Ann Arbor V.A. Medical Center while finishing his degree.

“That was when I discovered a huge disconnect between the overall wellbeing of veterans and the opportunities for improvement,” Jeff Yeakey said. “After Janna and I spent 20 years volunteering at the V.A., we knew that veterans and their families needed a sanctuary to relax, recover and rejuvenate.”

State Rep. Jennifer Conlin (D-Ann Arbor Township), right, secured $5 million for Freedom River, a 93-acre recreation site helping to reintegrate U.S. service members, veterans and their families. Jeff Yeakey, left, is a veteran, and Janna Yeakey is the executive director of Freedom River.

“This type of project plays an important role in providing wraparound services to our veterans and their families,” said Conlin. “We know veterans specifically benefit from being in nature and exercising. This is a healthy way of thanking them for all they sacrificed, while also helping them move forward.”

Rep. Conlin is the chairwoman of the House Committee on Military, Veterans, and Homeland Security.

In the state of Michigan, veterans make up 7.1 percent of the population. Nationwide figures show that nearly 90 percent of veterans are exposed to potentially traumatic events. Since 1999, more than 128,000 veterans have died by suicide.

“Military members can struggle to establish a purpose after serving in uniform, even within their own families,” said Jeff Frisby, Former Executive Director of the National Guard Association of Michigan. “Freedom River will give them a place to come together to find peace of mind.”

The A.D.A.-compliant facility will include family cabins, a gold star families cabin, a dining hall, a workshop and entertainment space, as well as campsites with fire pits, softball fields, a soccer field, and volleyball, basketball and even pickleball courts. Recreational activities will include boating, hiking, fishing, kayaking, canoeing and ziplining.

Last spring, the project was unanimously approved by the Hamburg Township Board of Trustees and Planning Commission.

“From the perspective of the community and the veterans who will find respite and connection with their peers amid the peace and natural beauty of this site, it’s difficult to visualize a more compatible use for this 93 acres in Hamburg Township,” Township Supervisor Pat Hohl said.

Though still in the planning stage, engineering firm Wade Trim and architectural firm TK Design and Associates are already hard at work making the project a reality. Freedom River Board Chairman Mike Haller said he is looking forward to ushering it to the finish line.

“Being part of the Freedom River initiative allows you to better understand the life-changing experiences that veterans have endured, as well as the impacts on their families,“ Haller said.

To learn more about the Freedom River project, go online to www.freedomriver.org.

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