A call for help from a veteran was the catalyst for Melissa to take her dog training business to the next level, founding Clear Path for Veterans with the goal of connecting veterans to programs and community resources that promote social connectivity, job readiness, and overall well-being.
Tell us a little about your background.
My husband and I are 5th and 6th generations to live in upstate New York. One could argue we’re crazy to live here for that long—or we’re incredibly committed! I feel what New York lacks in weather, we make up for in hospitality. My husband, David, cared for his great aunt from the time he was 17 until she died, when he was 31. Because of this, we couldn’t leave the area and at the time, we felt trapped. Now I see that staying put has a lot of advantages. You can contribute to your community in meaningful ways and when you need it, the community is there for you. That’s what’s great about New York, not to mention our beautiful and diverse landscape.
We live on the family farm passed down to David from his great (times 5) grandfather. This farm is one of the only remaining Revolutionary War tracts in Onondaga County, an area that helped build the agricultural and economic backbone of New York State. Our area, and New York State as a whole, has rich history. Where we live, there’s an active indigenous community that contributed to our model and how to care for our veterans.
My dad’s parents attended Syracuse University with completely different backgrounds. One came from Greece in 1910 and lived the American Dream. The other’s family were some of Syracuse’s originals. My dad’s grandfather was a family physician whom everyone loved; he built one of the first hospitals in Syracuse. My mom grew up in western New York in a small town called Lewiston. Her mother was extremely talented but suffered from significant mental health issues, which back then were not fully understood; there was limited treatment. Her dad was a high functioning alcoholic and my mother opted to take control of her own life and found her way out by attending Cornell University. She was a maverick; staring as a teacher she worked her way into corporate America and became top in her league. This, during a time when women rarely held high corporate positions. Although my dad’s family graduated from Syracuse University, he too attended Cornell, which is where my parents met. Both parents come from families that worked hard. They divorced when I was 6. They overcame a lot of obstacles that I didn’t know about until I was older.
At 20, I thought I could avoid hard times by working hard and doing everything right. I did not learn until my late 40s, that perfection is impossible. Obstacles, pain, and hard times are part of life and often serve as catalysts for change. The deeper the scars, the greater the impact you have. My education was uneventful, although I did graduate from Ithaca College. It is easy to admit now, that I was not college material and see that other entrepreneurs fell into that same category of learners. No matter where I landed, I found myself always creating something and I could inspire others to join me and follow my lead. This gave me a false sense of being in control. Many of my colleagues refer to me as a servant leader; I guess I never thought of myself as that but am honored they think that. People will rally behind your vision if you lead from the front and pay attention to the people who help you succeed.
Looking back, I had all the characteristics of being an entrepreneur, a catalyst for change, but I had no idea I would be led to social entrepreneurship. I have never had a problem identifying my work self, but my relevance as a person, a woman specifically, has been challenged. Social entrepreneurship changed that.
Back to my work history, I never felt comfortable with “just a job.” My parents were concerned with how I jumped from job to job during and after college. My then boyfriend (now husband), David was creating his own construction business and I found that exciting. But no matter where I focused, I had to believe in what I was doing and who I was doing it for. I needed to know I was making a big impact, one that people would remember. That led to a very successful career in student housing and later, in a positive reinforcement and socialization center for dogs. My dad’s vision became our family business, but it was my desire to create a culture of impact that made me feel like I was contributing. No matter what business adventure I was involved in, I wanted to build a culture, a community where people felt part of something bigger than themselves. A fine line between big visions and daydreaming is your ability to create plan and execute it. None of this can be done alone.
When did you start to think about making a change?
In 1998, at 35, I learned that I had a non-life-threatening disease that was creating havoc with my internal organs and that I was most likely never going to have children. My career in student housing and my husband’s construction company were booming. My ability to create a culture and organizational structure that were impactful built my confidence. I got good at building budgets and creating extensive financial reporting. We had a great work culture and our customers loved the community we created. I was at the top of my game.
From ages 35 to 40, I did not believe my doctor’s fertility caution and believed my inability to have kids was only his opinion. My husband David’s exceptional ability to accept what he cannot control makes him wise beyond his years. He felt strongly that it was okay to not have kids and suggested we needed to move on. But I insisted that if I did the hard work and found another doctor, I would have kids and David quietly watched me suffer. Slowly the curtain of powerless was unveiled; kids were not part of my future and I hated every moment of it. So, with a firm directive, David told me to leave one morning and not come back until I had a new puppy. We always had dogs and, in fact, had just lost one.
I chose a new puppy that day; her name was Maddy and she changed my life. Shortly after adopting Maddy, I read about a doggie daycare concept in Colorado, then met a veterinary tech who was trying to get such a business off the ground here locally. Six months later, I bought her business and launched… Blue Prints Dog Studio.
In 2003, at the age of 40, I left my full-time student housing career but maintained oversight of budgets and finances. For 20 years, I had dedicated myself to helping build our business, but it was time for change. There was no logic to my decision to leave and I started to focus on the benefits of improving the lives of others using dogs. Secretly, I was trying to improve my own life. If I could not take my kids to daycare, I would make sure I could at least take my dog to daycare and enable others to do the same.
Maddy eventually became certified in Pet Therapy. She and I visited inner city schools and hospitals that most people did not dare visit. Together, we taught others the benefits of positive interaction with dogs. I focused all my energies on becoming the best trainer I could be, and I think I achieved that when someone referred to me as the “dog whisperer” of Central New York.
Despite reaching my goals, I felt irrelevant because I did not have any kids and socially, that’s all anyone my age talked about. Women tend to value themselves on the activities of their children or center their friendships around their children. I felt socially awkward without children of my own, so I began to isolate to avoid uncomfortable conversations and I found it easier to work with men as they were less likely to talk about their kids. The trauma of those years is not gone, but I am learning to manage its effects.
What is your next act?
I am the cofounder and former CEO/Executive Director of Clear Path for Veterans, a nonprofit that started in 2011 with a service dog program and now offers employment and wellness programs to veterans. For six years, I served as the CEO on a volunteer basis to ensure I would push the organization from a solid place of service. In addition to our canine programming, we connect veterans to housing, education, employment, and other community benefits. Our programs and network of referrals are built on trust and the willingness to accept our responsibility to serve those who serve our country. Investing in their wellbeing is a priority for us and for our community.
One thing (of many) I have in common with veterans is the desire to live with relevance and purpose; it’s at the core of all we do. Veterans, military members, and their families don’t always come to Clear Path for the canine programming, but more than 70% of those who do come to our resource center have a dog. There’s a connection with canines that is unique and proven effective in mitigating symptoms associated with PTSD. Boulder Crest, a like-minded partner of ours, calls Post Traumatic Stress, Post Traumatic “Growth.” That is what Clear Path is all about: wellness, growth, and purpose. My bigger vision is to hopefully inspire others to use the Clear Path model to serve veterans in their community. I believe that healthy veterans transform communities and while I’m a civilian who’s never served, I want to work side by side this population in my community.
How did Clear Path for Veterans come about?
In October 2010, I got a call from a man looking for a trainer for his Dogs2Vets program. Assuming he was a veterinarian, I turned down his request as I was already involved with a lot of community volunteering. After a pause, he replied, “I’m not a veterinarian, I’m a veteran.” Two days later, for the first time in my life, I met someone who was truly living a life in service to others but was as socially awkward as I was. He had been in the military for 23 years, had just gotten out, and all he cared about was helping veterans with Post Traumatic Stress, get better so they could live productive and relevant lives. Simultaneously, he was feeling awkward in his transition and had begun to isolate. After several hours, we agreed to partner and create a service dog program that empowered veterans by teaching them how to train their own service dogs. That program has grown so much and is now led by another combat veteran who I call “my son.”
Although I knew very little about the military, I knew very well what it is like to have your body fail you and how that kind of trauma can lead to isolation, anger, and depression. Meeting this one veteran restored a little hope that maybe there was a population of people who would understand my current state of mind and I realized my life may have more meaning than having the children I’d never have. This relationship led me to a life in service to military members, veterans and their families. One thing I’ve learned from this special population is the value of humility. This new understanding, combined with my own experiences, has enabled me to make an impact on the veterans I meet, but I always say I receive much more than I give. It is the circle of giving.
In January 2011, when I was 48, I launched Clear Path for Veterans with my new veteran mentor and in March of 2011, my sister agreed to help me purchase a piece of property we would call home. Although both my cofounders moved on in 2013, I stayed committed to our collective vision, while following the lead of a veteran advisory board I created. Our Clear Path model has worked for all eras, branches, ranks and includes families. Veterans taking care of veterans has been a tradition of warrior culture for thousands of years, but few programs partner veterans and civilians like we do. Our center reflects our community’s commitment to supporting veterans and I’ve done all I can to inspire others to join me in supporting them. Our program has become an inspiration to other communities across New York State and now, in Massachusetts.
How hard was it to take the plunge?
The hardest part was convincing my cofounders and family that we could do this. Taking the plunge financially and emotionally was not hard for me but created tension. Both from others wondering why I was passionate about veterans to my family being adversely affected by such an investment. It was obvious to me that I had to do this. It’s as if something or someone tapped me on the shoulder then pushed my “GO” button. The pieces came together quickly.
One advantage to living in a small town is that you know everybody. I was adamant that our community show it cared by placing our veteran programs in a beautiful facility. From my experience, I knew how difficult it is to trust and ask for help. Veterans, especially those who have experienced combat, are very good at recognizing ulterior motives, so having a place that showed we valued them was a priority for me. I approached a family my husband had known since childhood and asked if they would sell their run-down recreation center. It was a well-known place in the community and had a stunning view.
Once the family said yes, I needed to come up with the money. Thankfully, my family had just sold our student housing business in 2007, enabling my sister and I to purchase and renovate the property with our own funds. My goal now is to relieve my sister of her financial obligation associated with that initial purchase and work with Clear Path to create a forever headquarters for others to visit and learn from.
How supportive were your family and friends?
HAHAHAHA!!! Well, they all thought I was bat sh*$t crazy. Even my fellow co-founders did not think we could financially grow in a way to support our vision long term. In fact, I invited Helen Marrone (wife of NFL coach Doug Marrone) to visit our center and gauge her thoughts on making this happen. Helen and I had gotten to know one another as she brought her dog to my training center while her husband was coaching at Syracuse. She and Doug are both very generous and strategically smart. They have been very supportive of our programs over the years, but Helen later admitted that she thought I was nuts!
So no, I had to apply gentle pressure relentlessly to get the support we needed. Thankfully, my sister was able to step in and help. My husband has always been my most consistent supporter. After selling his construction business and becoming a beef farmer in 2006, he has a lot in common with the military. America loves farmers and the military, but they don’t want either job, or they don’t want their kids to hold those jobs. Imagine what would happen if those in the military and on our American farmers all quit? Although both my sister and veteran cofounder moved on in 2013, my husband has stuck by me. In addition, new pioneers have stepped in and have made us better than I ever imagined we could be.
What challenges are you encountering?
Transition. There comes a time when the organization you started needs to survive past its founder. No one will have to kick me out. I know it is time to transition and I have two veterans and a supportive board helping me do that.
Just like when I started, I’m transitioning with not one, but two veterans by my side. One is Ryan Woodruff, Director of Canine Programming and the other is Alex Behm, my replacement as Executive Director. Both served in the Marine Corps and have lived through their own transition, so I know they can help me with mine. They know my goal is to one day be remembered by veterans and their families as their “Mother Theresa.” Someone who not only advocated for them but loved them when they were their most unlovable.
Another challenge is applying the needed business practices to an organization that is filled with passion. You must balance the trust we have built within the community with the need for structure and funding. COVID 19 hasn’t helped with ending isolation, so we must work even harder to break it and encourage people to reach out for help.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I learned that service above self is not what I thought. It’s not a quick visit to the nursing home or taking Maddy my therapy dog to a school event while I watch the clock. Service above self is giving others a piece of yourself—a piece that you may not have known you had. At first, it doesn’t feel like there’s a piece missing. You feel like it’s a privilege to serve. You then realize you have so much to give and you expect nothing in return.
I couldn’t have kids and the trauma of that reality (along with a few other life events) led me to open myself up to a population that I could relate to and they to me. An untapped resource of love can easily turn to hate if you don’t give it away. Maddy loved me when I was unlovable and helped me practice giving back until it became a part of who I am. Not having kids is the greatest gift I never wanted.
One day, a very close friend of our family came to tour the grounds to learn about our programs. An Episcopal Priest, he said, “Melissa, you have given birth in a different way.” The impact of that statement healed me and from that day on, I realized all I’d been through in my 20s and 30s and even into my 40s was for a reason: to prepare me to serve veterans and their families in ways that help build back their sense of hope, relevancy and purpose. Together we are stronger.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
Yes. Being so mission focused, there’s always an urgency to meet the need. Because I could clearly see where we were headed, I rarely slowed down. Sometimes, that urgency sent me flying by those who may not have understood where I was coming from. I became immersed, almost obsessed with what I was doing. I surrounded myself with veterans who found they could trust me, and I trusted them. Their guidance helped me go in the right direction. I became extremely protective of the trust we had built and I rarely listened to anyone who seemed to have a self-serving agenda. That I wouldn’t change.
But at the time, I didn’t realize that in order to maintain this trust, I’d have to end close relationships with people that I (and others) perceived as threats to that trust. Could I have been more selective in choosing who to involve and when? Probably. Could I have ended those relationships better? Probably, but the risk of exploiting a population that didn’t deserve to be exploited was all I cared about at the time. That’s a big responsibility and at the time, I wasn’t sure I could hold that responsibility long term, so I kept trying to find my replacement. Someone that could do it better, at least in my mind. I rushed my transition and it failed every time. I should have trusted the natural process better and my ability to do the work.
As a result, I made bad hires, had to make hard business decisions for the greater good and those actions sometimes hurt people I cared about. I have a hard time forgiving myself for that. Although I’m not one to look back, I don’t want to repeat my mistakes. Failing, fixing, and adjusting to keep things headed in the right direction I’m comfortable with, but when my mistakes adversely affect others it tends to haunt me. It’s always a balance of mistakes, resiliency, and compassion.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Don’t chase it. It doesn’t have to be this huge change. It can start slowly and unexpectedly. Remain open to what maybe right in front of you. Embrace the historic and critical role women have played in keeping our communities safe and strong. Your true calling will feel like a privilege.
Don’t sacrifice everything to reach set goals. Many women I know, especially in midlife, are tired of doing for others and feel compelled to find what makes them happy. But women are the warriors. We are healers and protectors. Much like the Women of Sparta, we strengthen our communities through sacrifice, leading by example and protecting what we love. I embrace that concept.
What advice do you have for those interested in helping veterans?
Less than 1/10th of 1% of our population serves in the military. Warrior culture teaches us that healthy veterans transform communities, but it is the community’s responsibility to make sure they get healthy. Not higher education, not the VA, but everyday people like you and me. Every community should have a good hospital, school system, and a resource center like ours dedicated to supporting veterans. It’s an investment every community should make.
Here are some nationally focused organizations that offer Veterans support in specific areas:
Team Red White & Blue https://www.teamrwb.org/
Syracuse University Institute for Veterans and Families https://ivmf.syracuse.edu/
Project Healing Waters https://projecthealingwaters.org/
American Warrior Partnership https://americaswarriorpartnership.org/
Hidden Heroes https://hiddenheroes.org/
Honor Flight https://www.honorflight.org/
To learn more about our mission and how communities can be involved in supporting veterans, check out these resources:
Dr. Edward Tick who helped us early on with our community’s role and responsibility: https://www.soldiersheart.net/about-dr-tick
Boulder Crest Retreat shares a similar mission as ours: http://www.bouldercrestretreat.org/
Read the book Once a Warrior: Wired for Life by Bridget Cantrell
What’s next for you?
Hard to say. In the short term, I’ll remain on the board of directors and help where I’m asked. Whatever I do beyond that will most likely be in support of veterans and their families. I may even start training dogs again! I’m open and want the organization to lead me in how I may best serve it.
I’d love an opportunity to testify before Congress on why it’s vital we as a nation invest in a healthy veteran population. I want to be the civilian advocate for military members, veterans, and their families. I have worked with the best staff; twelve of them are veterans who have all served in combat with a combined 46 deployments. The twelve civilian staff understand their role and the two cultures have created a sweet spot in service to others. Same goes for our board of directors. Whatever I do, I hope I get an opportunity to teach the next generation of CPV staff, board members and visitors to carry on the legacy of what we created. Together we are stronger.
Connect with Melissa R. Spicer
Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/ClearPathForVeterans