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Changemakers: Portland Navy veteran puts heart and soul into nonprofit Soul River

Chad Brown uses fly fishing to connect veterans and inner-city youth on a mission of conservation and healing.

CLACKAMAS COUNTY, Ore. — In honor of Black History Month, this February we’re recognizing "Changemakers" — African American leaders who help make our community and our world a better place.

Navy veteran Chad Brown fits the bill. He lives in Northeast Portland and founded the nonprofit Soul River. It pairs veterans with at-risk youth and takes them fly fishing. But learning to cast a line is just the start. There are deeper lessons about conservation and healing.

"That rod was kind of like my Bible and my river was my church," Brown said. When he discovered fly fishing on the Clackamas, he found peace and a reason to live.

Credit: Chad Brown

After serving in Desert Storm and suffering from PTSD, he became homeless and almost took his own life.

"I found myself in the blood lines right up on 82nd giving blood for $20 to put gas in my tank," he said. "I used to go to M.L.K. to McDonald's and at night I would dumpster dive to get whatever food I could to eat." 

But he emerged from that dark time determined to light the way for others the only way he knew how — waders on, fishing pole in hand, waist deep in the healing power of rushing water. 

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Brown described it this way: "I was feeling that energy. It made me feel strong. It made me feel like I was alive. And that's the day I felt like I was ready to get back into society and kick some butt. I said, 'I don't want to step back into a society and go after a regular job.' I want to do something much more deep, with much more purpose."

That's how Soul River was born. The organization Brown founded pairs veteran mentors with inner-city youth. Most of these kids have never camped or even walked on a trail before. Now they're heading deep into the back country, learning about nature and conservation. 

Brown said his ultimate goal for the kids "is to grow them into leaders of our wild spaces. They come out with rich stories but they also start to develop a voice for advocacy for indigenous people, and for our public lands, and fresh water."

Credit: Chad Brown

And that water stretches far beyond Oregon! 

"We have our big deployment heading up to the Arctic Circle," Brown said. "It's one of those trips when our youth turn into youth leadersit's kind of like their vision quest. It's an opportunity to go to the top of the world. We do anywhere from 150- to 200-mile river runs. We're self sustained, led by veterans and it's a phenomenal experience."

Credit: Chad Brown

Brown said Soul River has become a stepping stone to careers after college for some of these kids. He said some have gone on to work for U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

If you'd like to learn more about Soul River and its upcoming trips visit soulriverinc.org. Brown said it's always looking for veterans, youth and volunteers. Throughout the entire month of February, Soul River is hosting an online auction to raise money for its efforts. You can support the cause and bid on an auction item by visiting the link here

Credit: Chad Brown

WATCH: Full interview with Soul River founder Chad Brown