After six years serving abroad in the Air Force, A.J. Thompson was ready to return home to St. Louis. But he wasn’t done with public service.
“I spent time oversees, and I saw my city struggling,” Thompson said. “I wanted to find a way I could have an opportunity to make a difference.”
A friend suggested The Mission Continues, a charity founded in St. Louis that connects veterans with volunteer opportunities in their communities. He was immediately hooked.
“It’s community service on steroids,” Thompson said of The Mission Continues’ work. “Most veterans find their purpose when they serve. ... Take that away from a veteran and they can become lost.”
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The Mission Continues is active in 40 cities and has helped hundreds of veterans find ways to give back to their communities. This weekend, Thompson and veterans from around the country gathered to build outdoor classrooms and reading lofts at Banneker Elementary in Kansas City, Kan.
Yet many Missourians only became aware of The Mission continues because of the scandals that engulfed its founder, former Gov. Eric Greitens.
For the last two years, and especially the last six months, charity leaders have dealt with pointed questions and ugly headlines, with subpoenas and nervous donors.
Spencer Kympton, the charity’s president, hopes all the drama is finally in the rear-view mirror.
“The best way to know The Mission Continues,” he said, “is to see the impact we have in communities.”
For years, veterans and community volunteers come together all over the country to work to improve schools, eliminate food deserts, mentor at-risk youth and much more, Kympton said. Struggling communities benefit while veterans and their families make connections that help them reintegrate to life after the military.
“Communities can get stronger,” “he said, “and veterans and their families can find fulfillment in public service.”
Most of the volunteers who arrived in Kansas City this weekend say they didn’t really pay much attention to the Greitens saga. And few people currently involved with The Mission Continues were around when Greitens was in charge.
Throughout the tumult of the last two years, Kympton said, the charity has worked to remain focused on its core values and on its mission.
It wasn’t always easy.
Greitens founded The Mission Continues in 2007. When he left in 2014 he used it as a springboard for his burgeoning political career, including relying on its donor list to raise money for his successful gubernatorial campaign.
By doing so, he put the charity’s nonprofit status — and potentially its very existence — at risk.
Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley launched an investigation. So did the Missouri House and the prosecutor in St. Louis.
The Mission Continues never wavered: It did not and would not have allowed Greitens or anyone to use its resources for political purposes. Doing so would have violated federal law prohibiting charities from engaging in campaigns.
“It’s been a distraction and a frustration,” Kymtpon said. “Fortunately, the impact of this has rested on the shoulders of our leadership team. We’ve focused on trying to ensure the work itself has been insulated.”
Greitens’ alleged indignities extended beyond just his use of the charity’s donor list.
He was accused of blackmail and violent sexual misconduct by a woman with whom he had an affair in 2015. His campaign apparatus, which included a dark-money nonprofit, faced a barrage of accusations that it worked to knowingly violate state campaign finance and ethics laws.
Greitens denied all allegations he faced, but nearly every time his name appeared in headlines associated with alleged criminal wrongdoing, his association with The Mission Continues got a mention.
The charity’s donors and corporate partners deserved an explanation, Kympton said, and he and others have worked relentlessly to ease any concerns.
“We’ve had great partners who stood by us along the way,” he said, “and in some cases even increased their commitment to us.”
Chelsea Barto, an Army veteran who serves as a “platoon leader” for The Mission Continues in Kansas City, said the scandal never trickled down to the work she and others were doing in communities.
“The focus has remained on the projects and the impact we’ve can have,” she said.
Greitens eventually was charged with a felony over his use of the charity’s donor list, a charge that was dropped in a plea deal that led to his resignation last month.
And The Mission Continues was publicly cleared of any wrongdoing, both by the state attorney general and the Missouri House.
“The mission really does continue,” Kympton said. “It will continue long after the all this is a distant memory, because it must. We haven’t taken our foot off the gas.”
For Thompson, the value of The Mission Continues is demonstrated by the veterans who turn to the organization when they feel they have nowhere else to go.
“Everyone has struggles that they go through, and you don’t always have an opportunity to talk to people who understand your struggle and can relate to coming home after these traumatic experiences,” he said.
“It’s hard to open up to people, because not everyone can understand. Being around The Mission Continues, you get that brotherhood back, and that sense of service.
“The love is genuine,” he said, “and you can feel it. You just know it.”