FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — What started as a hobby between deployments for Army veteran Kurt Ballash has turned into a passion for him and other veterans in the community.
Ballash is the owner of Ballash Woodworks in Fayetteville, which specializes in commercial and residential furniture design and fabrication.
In the Army, Ballash was a combat engineer from 2003 to 2006 and then became a medic until 2013. When he got out of the military, woodworking helped him find a new purpose.
“Woodworking kind of helped me come back from a really dark place in my life after getting out of the service, feeling like I didn’t have a purpose, I didn’t fit in anywhere — I kind of didn’t know what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” he said. “I thought I was going to be a medic and go be a physician assistant and all of those things kept getting shut down in front of me. When I was faced with that confidence boost that I was getting out of woodworking, me and my wife really started discussing how we can make a difference in the community.”
In 2018, Ballash and his late wife, Janie Smith, co-founded the Artisan Outreach, a nonprofit organization that teaches creative outlets to veterans, active-duty military and family members.
“We rebranded my woodworking business from Fayetteville Wood Art to Ballash Woodworks, we started getting going and I started to notice the increased sense of confidence that I was getting out of it,” he said. “I started teaching that and mentoring other veterans in woodworking, and I noticed that they, too, were getting some positive feedback that I got from it.”
Earlier this year, Ballash’s nonprofit received a grant from the North Carolina Arts Council. From that funding, he sent 50 military-connected families and active-duty members to his workshops to learn woodworking.
“They got to leave there with some sense of confidence in creating something that they got to build up with their hands, versus kind of seeing the destruction of what the military causes,” Ballash said. “The nature of the military is to go to war and destroy things. I understand we have (public relations) and all that kind of stuff, and we do good for the world. But at the end of the day, I felt like they needed some sense of being rebuilt or rebuilding something themselves.”
The families made their own leather cutting boards, wallets or belts, he said.
Ballash said he wants the nonprofit to help veterans struggling with thoughts of suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I want to be proactive in the veteran crisis on suicide and PTSD,” he said. “I don’t like seeing where we’re only seen treating things at the end of it, when people are in crisis mode, when they are at their bottom. Why don’t we take a more proactive approach to it and start building up that purpose inside of them before they transition out of service to prevent them and their family from going through those hardships.”
Along with teaching skills, Ballash’s organization helps veterans build a life for themselves.
“We do have several veterans that have come to us, several active-duty members, and even individuals that aren’t military-connected, come in. We network freely with them, we go through guidance and help them develop their business plans if they need to,” he said. “Beyond just teaching skills, we’re also mentoring future entrepreneurs.”