TAPS NFL Young Adults Summit: A Weekend of Hope, Connections and Possibilities

Author: Renee Monczynski

In July, forty surviving children and siblings, ages 18 to 30, and at varying stages of their grief journey, came together with their TAPS Family in Atlanta for the TAPS NFL Young Adults Summit.  These young adults came from locations across the country - some connecting with TAPS for the first time, and others who have been attending TAPS events their entire lives. The theme of the weekend was connections and possibilities - connection with peers, as well as connection with professionals who could help guide and inspire them to see all of the opportunities and potential that lay out there for them as they continue building their adult lives and careers. 

Atlanta Falcons Stadium

Young Adults at the Summit in Atlanta

This four day event offered an elevated learning experience and introduced resources and hands-on skills within the five foundational pillars of the TAPS Young Adults Program. Each pillar of the program was thoughtfully and uniquely engaged throughout the weekend. Attendees took part in workshops, hands-on activities, and engaged in networking opportunities with our partners, led by executives and coordinator level positions from ten different departments within the AMB Sports + Entertainment family, the Atlanta Falcons, the NFL, and USAA. These young survivors experienced activities that broadened their perspectives, enhanced their skill sets, had some competitive fun at TopGolf, and shared in the joy of connection that stems from being together with their TAPS family.

“I've been part of TAPS for a really long time. There's so many incredible young people here and so many amazing stories being shared. Everyone is so open. There's such a family aspect of TAPS - when we all get together, it is just so healing to be able to talk about things that most people outside this community don't have language for. And, sometimes it's less words and just more love and connection. But, it's just beautiful. The community aspect of TAPS…it's just, it's lifelong. So people I meet here, at this Summit, I will still know in 10 years, and I'll be able to walk along their journeys and they, mine.” - Kristen Thomas, Surviving Daughter

I had a unique opportunity to witness this event through the eyes of my daughter, Ashley. We started this survivor journey together in 2001, when my husband, Matt, died at the young age of 23. She is now 21, with two college degrees and a current career in sales. She graduated high school in 2019, graduated from community college with an Associate of Arts in 2020, and became licensed and registered as a dental assistant in 2021. 

My daughter had great momentum launching her into adulthood, yet it all seemed to stall, as it did for many college age adults during the pandemic, when study abroad programs were canceled, and no jobs were available for newly minted dental assistants or other young career ready adults. Like many other young adults, she also had a muted celebration of her academic achievements, receiving and acknowledged via mail, rather than walking across a stage during a formal graduation. These back to back disappointments coupled with a global pandemic were a lot for a young adult to navigate, as we have heard from many of our young adults. 

Young Adults at the Summit in Atlanta

Young Adults at the Summit in Atlanta

This event brought back the confidence my daughter had worked so hard for - that all of these young adults had worked so hard to achieve - among peers who had similar paths in grief, education and careers. Not only had they been brought together from a similar loss of a military loved one, but they also experienced additional disruptions of their futures. Some got into the universities of their dreams, only to take online classes isolated in their dorm rooms. Some landed their dream jobs, only to be laid off because they were entry level. Some even moved home after being independent for years because they could no longer afford their rent. Lives were suddenly and unexpectedly interrupted and unsettled for a second time in their lives. But, this event highlighted that possibilities can still spring from uncertainty, new paths can still achieve the same goals, and that one ultimate goal that all of our young adults shared is to have a life built on hope, healing, and growth. 

“I graduated high school in 2020, went straight into college in the middle of a pandemic, and my mental health suffered immensely. I was in a rut that I couldn't get out of, until I connected with the Young Adults Program in March of this year. Being part of this program and attending the Young Adults Summit, I have learned so much about myself, but also about all of the amazing opportunities that I can take advantage of, all of the amazing people that are there to help me, and all of the potential and possibility that I still have in my life.” - Justin Stubenhofer, Surviving Son

This event seemed to reignite these young adults’ passion for learning, thinking outside the box to align their own values and purpose with a fulfilling career, and leaving time to balance life outside of work. It was a powerful time of reacquainting young adults with all the viable possibilities available within the connections of the TAPS network and family.

“By coming this weekend, I really just wanted to expand my horizons as far as professionally and network with just some incredible people, and understand what's possible. It was incredible…hearing from so many speakers that really just asked some wonderful questions, who got to know me and my story, and really just kind of challenged me to just take risks and not fear. They truly have my back, along with TAPS, and reassured me that I could reach for things beyond what I even thought was possible.” - Kristen Thomas, Surviving Daughter

Young Adults at the Summit in Atlanta

The TAPS Young Adults Program can never make up for the parent or sibling these survivors are missing in their lives; but, we can walk alongside, give opportunities, resources and foundational skills for each young adult to be able to make better decisions as they build a foundation for a life they are proud of - a life that honors both who they are becoming and the legacy of their loved one’s military service.

“TAPS, especially the Young Adults program has changed my life and definitely opened my eyes. I would not be where I am at all mentally, or even the person I am with the people that I love, without this program. I'm a completely different person in a better way, tenfold, than I was before I attended my first event. And, I think almost everybody I've talked to here can relate to that.” - Justin Stubenhofer, Surviving Son

"I am eternally grateful for the endless opportunities TAPS has given me to further my personal and professional growth.I don't think I ever imagined myself thriving in such a professional environment. Suffocated by self doubt and anxiety surrounding my place in the adult world has really held me back from doing the things I've always wanted to do. TAPS is the best family I never wanted to be a part of, but I am so glad I have them behind me in every step of the way in my journey of self appreciation and development." - Mackenzie Runyan, Surviving Daughter

TAPS Young Adults Program

If you are a surviving child or sibling ages 18 to 30 and looking for connection and community, the TAPS Young Adults program is here for you. To learn more, visit www.taps.org/youngadults or email youngadults@taps.org.

Renee Monczynski, Young Adults Program Manager, is the surviving spouse of Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew Steven Monczynski