October 12, 2021

From Combat to Caregiver

One man's mission to inspire change.

Damien Foord

This Article Also Appeared in Discover Magazine

From combat to caregiver, Jaden Risner's story is one undeniably defined by service. "Some people shy away from serving others, but I've always found it's what gives life meaning." After graduating from the United States Naval Academy, he spent 12 years active duty as a helicopter pilot. He had a storied career, including multiple tours of duty overseas and around the world. He was on one such deployment when his mother suffered a heart attack. He suddenly needed to coordinate her care from half a world away and was shocked at the lack of technological solutions to support family members abroad.

Jaden eventually left active duty to play a more significant role in his mother's care. Though his commitment to his family called for him to stay near home, he found ways to continue to serve the community. A California native, duty brought him to San Diego over a decade ago, and he's never left. He became an active member of San Diego professional organizations and continued to serve as a reserve helicopter pilot. He affectionately describes his work in the Navy as a "Taxi service for the real heroes." He relishes that it gives him "a chance to serve those doing some of the most critical work in our nation's military." It's a refreshingly humble way for a decorated helicopter pilot who has served in multiple tours of duty to characterize his work. Still, you come to realize that's just part of who Jaden is.  

After leaving Active Duty to care for his mother, Jaden found a special connection at the Rady School of Management. Their mission is to "develop ethical and entrepreneurial leaders who make a positive impact in the world through innovation, collaboration, and knowledge." Seeing echoes of his passion for positive impact through serving others, he joined the 2018 MBA class where he met Clay Treska. Clay, a Marine Corps veteran himself, had beaten cancer once before, only for it to return with a terminal diagnosis. It was only through the connections of his support network that he identified an experimental treatment that ultimately saved his life. Clay and Jaden found a common bond as veterans as well as their shared experiences. Each of them had seen first-hand the vital importance of support networks and the barriers modern life creates to giving and receiving support. 

Together they vowed to make it simpler to give and receive support, not just for families in situations as extreme as their own experiences, but for everyone. They founded Family Proud and developed an app that allows anyone to give and receive support from anywhere. Clay recalls his inspiration for co-founding the company with Jaden, "For me, as a patient, nothing meant more to me than being connected to my family. But staying connected with them and keeping them updated was hard — I had to contact everyone individually."

Family Proud started with the mission that technology should make us better at caring for each other, not worse. If done well, we can ensure that no family need goes unmet. It's a big vision, and Jaden's aware of it. " If it were easy, it would be solved already. But we're proud to be breaking that big problem up into solvable chunks and making daily progress." 

And making progress, they are. Family Proud raised over a million dollars and has since deployed solutions at several other nonprofits across the United States, including Rady Children’s hospital. When I bring up any number of web-based page creators that allow you to raise money or coordinate support, Jaden cracks a wry smile. I can tell he's been asked this question before and welcomes the challenge. "I'm glad these companies exist. They help a lot of people, and it's all part of ensuring no family need goes unmet. But what they lack is a persistent sense of community. Usually, if you're setting up one of these campaigns, the issues have already hit the fan. We are trying to create a way to solve smaller, more frequent issues as they arise, so you don't end up there in the first place. And you can only do that by keeping people continuously engaged in a persistent digital community."

While available to anyone in the app store, Family Proud often partners with community organizations to help boost connection and engagement. They recently partnered with a nonprofit that normally wouldn't have been able to afford their services. Still, they were able to secure a for-profit company to sponsor the technology for the nonprofit, and they were thrilled. "That's why we do this; because people are saying, 'Where is this solution?' and so it feels like our responsibility to provide it." 

If you ask Jaden, this is bigger than solving individual needs: people are hungry for it. "People are hungry for a social platform that does more than amplify the worst of our personalities but draws out the best of our humanity. We come together when we do things with and for each other. When we share the burdens of hardship. There are many organizations that do a lot to support people in need but they can only do so much. At the end of the day, it takes a collective community to support something greater than any individual. We can look around for someone to blame or get busy working together to help." 

There's no doubt that their idea is ambitious, but maybe a more ambitious vision is just what we need. Perhaps we need a change in thinking from people across the country and more advocacy from people already thinking this way. With the talk about social media in the news lately, it's hard to believe this issue is going away anytime soon. It's likely to only become more present in the national dialogue. Family Proud just saw it coming early and spent the last few years preparing a solution. After spending a short time with Jaden, you get a palpable sense of the reality of the problem and his certainty that they've developed a solution. Let's hope they get all the support they need from the rest of us to make it a success. A few years from now, we may all be saying we are "Family Proud," and we'll be proud it started in San Diego.