Aaron Quinonez, known by friends and employees as “Sgt. Q,” is changing his nonprofit’s funding model after both Maple Valley and more recently Covington banned fireworks and firework sales from the city.
“The firework stand was a huge outreach that we did,” Quinonez said. “We would meet with so many veterans right there in Home Depot.”
Quinonez is the founder of the Auburn nonprofit QMissions, which helps local veterans from the Auburn, Kent, Covington and Maple Valley area heal from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression through service missions around the world. At QMissions veterans volunteer to build houses in Mexico, provide education in different countries in Africa while also meeting regularly back home to talk about what life is like after combat.
Each year the nonprofit raised around $10,000 towards these service trips through the yearly firework stands. The City of Covington approved a ban on fireworks and firework sales in December, which will go into affect in 2021. Now Quinonez is having to consider new ways to raise funds for the trips, which are mostly funded by his janitorial business and local donors.
QMissions – A spiritual journey
Quinonez started QMissions after a long, spiritual journey which led him from being homeless and suicidal to a married, successful business owner.
Over a decade ago Quinonez found himself homeless for the second time in his life. A U.S. Marine veteran, he struggled with depression and suicidal tendencies due to PTSD. One Fourth of July he parked his car at a random parking lot in Maple Valley with the intent to end his life.
“I heard kids playing, because there’s a playground nearby, so I was going to wait until they leave and then I’ll commit suicide,” Quinonez said. “But I fell asleep. And when I woke up the suicidal ideation was gone. About a week later a friend of mine invited me to church. So I went, and I drove into that same parking lot. It was New Life Church, I had no idea that parking lot was a church. It was kind of eerie driving back there, knowing that I’d almost committed suicide just a few days before that.”
Quinonez started attending church regularly and began studying religious scripture. He was invited by his pastor to attend a mission trip to Mexico to help build a home for a homeless family, but Quinonez declined.
A few months later Quinonez found himself facing another large, emotional task. He was asked to come to California to be with his estranged father during his final days.
“He was a drunk and a drug addict when I was growing up,” Quinonez said. “And he was really abusive. I hadn’t seen him since I was 13.”
As a teenager, Quinonez, his sister and his mother lived on the side of a river in California for six months before finding permanent housing. But Quinonez’s new-found religion urged him to be the kinder person and meet with his father.
On the way home from being with his father and preparing his father’s final resting place, a young girl at an airport randomly came up to Quinonez and said “I don’t know if you believe in God … but God put it in my heart to tell you that he is happy with the way you’re living your life.”
“The whole world melted away,” Quinonez said. “(The girl) and I are still friends to this day, her name is also Aaron.”
The entire journey gave Quinonez and change of heart and he asked his pastor if there was still room on the mission trip to Mexico. His pastor had saved him a seat.
Quinonez spent that Memorial Day building the house, instead of his traditional celebration of beers alone thinking about the people who didn’t come home with him from Afghanistan. It was then he decided serving others was a better way to honor veterans who died overseas.
“I did that quietly for seven years,” Quinonez said. “I would go back every year and build a home for a family in Mexico. I also went on trips all over the world. I’ve been to Haiti, Honduras, I’ve been all over Africa. I’ve been to Kenya, Malawi, Swaziland (Eswatini). What God was showing me is there is healing through serving other people. There’s healing through service.”
Quinonez officially started QMissions, outside of New Life Church, after a veteran friend of his became suicidal.
“Jason went off the grid,” Quinonez said. “And usually when (Marines) do that, they’ve committed suicide. So I prayed and said whether Jason lives or dies, I want to be a catalyst for other vets.”
Quinonez found out his friend had nearly attempted suicide but instead check himself into a three-day rehab at the local Veteran’s Association (VA) hospital.
During this time Quinonez had also started his own janitorial business, where he cleaned floors overnight for Auburn businesses. His work ethic earned him many contracts which led to an apartment and soon led to him purchasing a building in downtown Auburn which used to be a book store. One portion of the building homes his cleaning services and employees while the rest of the building includes spaces for QMissions such as an event center, a wood sign work shop in the basement and one room dubbed “The War Room.”
The building used to belong to the Comstock family and homed Comstock’s Bindery and Bookshop. The previous couple sold the shop after David Comstock died. Quinonez found a lot of military antiques and treasures in the bookstore, which had belonged to Comstock. The Comstock family let Quinonez keep the old pictures, helmets and binoculars, which now sit on the shelves in The War Room.
The War Room is the main meeting room where Quinonez and QMission volunteers meet to talk about budgets, trips and outreach.
Quinonez’s janitorial company pitched in about half of the $25,000 needed to start QMissions, with the other half coming from Quinonez selling his prized fishing boat and a generous donation from Matvey Foundation Repair.
Since then Quinonez has taken veterans on multiple service missions, including a boot camp all volunteers must attend. He’s also written a military manual-style book on how mission service can help veterans heal PTSD and depression. The book is expected to be published within 2020.
For James Alexander, QMissions is how he came to realize he was suffering from PTSD.
Alexander is Quinonez’s neighbor and started volunteering with QMissions after Quinonez hassled him a few times.
“He asked me if I was interested in going onto missions in Mexico or third-world countries, and I said ‘no,’” Alexander said. “I kept on saying ‘no,’ and one day I finally said yes.”
Alexander served in the U.S. Coast Guard from 1986 till 2013. During that time he traveled the world as a telephone technician, where he climbed mountains and visited many areas installing telephone towers. He also served on two ships during his career. Alexander recalled times where he was stationed at impoverished towns and his ship wasn’t able to do as much outreach as Alexander would have liked. So he figured going to Mexico with QMissions would be a good way to give back in the same way he wish he did while in the Coast Guard.
“I guess you could say I was blind to PTSD,” Alexander said. “I didn’t really know a whole lot about it.”
During QMission trips, the volunteer veterans are asked to join as a group at the end of the day to discuss different topics. It was during one of these group chats where Alexander realized he was like the other veterans there and was likely also suffering from some form of PTSD.
Alexander nearly died in 2007 from leukemia. During his 15 days stay at the University of Washington he was forced to shut down his immune system while he underwent blood tests and surgeries, meaning no one could visit him in the hospital. Alexander’s doctors said if he had waited even three more days to see a doctor about his health, he would have died.
“I didn’t think it was a traumatic experience, but it was apparently enough,” Alexander said. “But just going around the room, listening to all these combat veterans and seeing all of these things about what they have and what they are experiencing. And I had a lot of similar issues. QMissions showed me I had PTSD.”
Now Alexander is able to work on his mental health, which had been a large benefit for not only himself but his wife and family.
Moving on from fireworks
Quinonez was upfront about his opinions on the recent fireworks ban in Maple Valley and Covington, he is against them. His biggest pet peeve, he said, is when people use veterans like himself as a reason to ban the practice and sale.
“They used veterans as a political football,” he said. “But nobody asked me. No one asked my guys. We are your subject matter.”
Quinonez spoke up against the ban during the December Covington Council meeting and was directed to apply for what Quinonez called a “community grant.” But since then he says he hasn’t been able to apply for any funding for QMissions from the city.
City Manager Regan Bolli said the City of Covington provides Human Services grants on a two-year schedule to help fund programs, nonprofits and services that provide “human resources” in a general sense.
“The City Council budgets to give $136,000 each year to our Human Services Commission,” Bolli said. “What they do is they receive applications from somewhere between 30 to 40 applicants. And (Human Services Commission) funds about 13 applicants. It’s kind of broad but it’s homelessness, it’s mental health, shelter, food …”
Some entities receive a small grant of a few thousand with some grants of up to $10,000. These are two-year grants so no funds will be given to new applicants until 2021. This leave Quinonez with only a couple of options, run a fireworks stand in Covington for one more year before the ban takes place, or find a whole new funding model until the grant is available.
Quinonez said he is looking into forming a 5K fun run event, but it is still in the works. QMissions runs on a razor’s edge budget, which is why everyone involved in volunteer-based only.
For Quinonez, the biggest loss isn’t the $10,000 a year in funding but the chance to reach out to veterans who bought fireworks. He hopes any future events will serve the same type of outreach.