Charlie Jones knows exactly how he’d use his money if he won the lottery: fund his nonprofit Dear Calvin Project that creates video testimonial tributes for Gold Star families.
The 37-year-old Marine veteran lives in Fox River Grove, Illinois, and has wanted to get the nonprofit off the ground for nearly five years. So far, he’s produced one video, a tribute to his mentor, Sgt. Johnathan Davis, who was killed in action in Afghanistan. Calvin is the name of Davis’ son.
Helena Davis said her son, now 13, is grateful for the nearly 23-minute professionally shot and edited video, which she called a “tremendous gift.” The Davis family also received handwritten and typed letters, digital raw footage, and a customized fountain pen.
“From a family perspective, this gift pays dividends throughout every year,” said Helena, who lives in Southern California. “Anytime my son feels lost or lonely while missing his biological father, he can return to the video/letters/box.”
Jones, who runs an online resale shop, said his main obstacle in launching the nonprofit has been to push himself to ask people for money.
“I would get really gung-ho, then hit a snag and get discouraged,” he said. “It’s just me getting into my own way.”
His efforts were reinvigorated thanks to his participation in two nonprofit veterans’ programs, he said. One was a veterans-in-residence business incubator program through Bunker Labs in 2021; the other was a five-month fellowship offered this year by Dog Tag Inc.
Jones said he’s now secured funding to produce a second video, and is optimistic about getting more.
“It’s not a political thing. It’s not even pro war or antiwar,” he said. “This is just remembering people and who they really were. So their children especially, more than anybody, can get a sense that they know that person.”
A native of Arlington Heights, Illinois, Jones enlisted in the Marines out of high school in 2003. He spent four years on active duty, including 14 months in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom II as a truck driver with Regimental Combat Team, 1st Marine Division. He also was an instructor/controller at Mojave Viper training exercise in Twentynine Palms, California.
He started taking college classes in 2007 in Chicago, then reactivated into the Selected Marine Corps Reserve. He left as a staff sergeant in 2012 after he got unnecessarily angry about not being able to retake a physical fitness test that he’d failed, he said. It was a hasty decision that he regrets, he added.
Left without a sense of identity and drinking too much, he spiraled out of control, even becoming suicidal, he said. He got sober Jan. 1, 2016. He went to rehab and a halfway house, and has been sober since.
The Dear Calvin Project gave him a renewed sense of purpose, Jones said.
The idea came after Helena asked her late husband’s buddies to write letters to her son. Jones wrote a double-sided, four-page letter, then opted for a video and asked the others to join him.
Jones said he secured some pro bono help but paid for flights, hotels and more to shoot the video in February 2018 in Atlanta. The more than $10,000 expense set him back financially for a long time, he explained.
So, what about doing the videos via smartphone or Zoom? That’s always a possibility, but there is something special about the dynamics of being together for professional filming, he said.
Dog Tag Inc. CEO Meghan Ogilvie praised Jones for his determination to build what she called “a meaningful and important undertaking” – along with his resilience, honest self-reflection, humor and generosity.
The official name of Jones’ nonprofit is Survived Inc., which has federal 501(c)(3) status. Jones said his vision is to someday offer additional support for Gold Star families, like mentorship for children.
“Aside from the effects of PTSD and the physical trauma of war, I honestly think those people have it the worst,” he said. “They have to move forward with a broken family. To me, it’s a very underappreciated group of people.”