Nonprofit Leadership and Management Graduate Steve Kappes Follows Passions to ‘Encore Career’

Nonprofit Leadership and Management Graduate Steve Kappes Follows Passions to ‘Encore Career’

Steven Kappes Headshot

Steve Kappes is what you might consider a post-traditional college student. The American Council on Education defines that as any student who is 25 years of age and older. Kappes is 61, and compared to some of his classmates who haven’t entered the workforce, Kappes is entering what he calls his “encore career.”

He grew up in a suburb of Pittsburgh and attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he was a member of the university’s Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC). Following graduation, Kappes was commissioned as an officer in the United States Navy — a four-year contract turned into a 24 year career. 

During his years of service, he earned his master’s degree in national security at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. Kappes then went to work for a small engineering company that was acquired by a mid-sized defense company. He remained there for 12 years, working and living in San Diego with his wife and two children – both of whom are now young adults living on their own. 

To some, it would seem like Kappes is coming to the point in life where retirement becomes a frequent topic of conversation. But it isn't. 

Kappes is graduating this weekend from the University of San Diego (USD) with a Master’s in Nonprofit Leadership and Management — and if you’re keeping track, yes, this is his second advanced degree.

“A couple of years ago, I started to think, ‘I’ve done a lot of military-related work, and that has been extremely fulfilling, but it’s a big world out there with a lot of other possibilities,’” says Kappes. “It got me thinking, ‘What else might I like to do?’”

One of his initial thoughts was to do something that continued his passion for volunteer work.

“Community service is really important to me. As I reflected on that, I thought, ‘the next move I want to make career-wise is into the nonprofit sector.’”

Kappes is the co-founder of the San Diego Wounded Warrior Tennis Program, a nonprofit that uses tennis as a means of rehabilitation and community reintegration for wounded, ill and injured military service members, veterans and their families.

“I’ve always had an interest in giving back to the military community,” says Kappes. “When I discovered there was an opportunity to combine my love of tennis with my understanding of the experiences of being a military service member, it just seemed like a perfect way to apply my knowledge and skills in a way that was going to be beneficial to others.”

The program came to fruition after a recreational therapist at Naval Medical Center San Diego reached out to Kappes and some of his tennis colleagues. At the time, other community-based sports groups in the San Diego area were offering free programming for the hospital’s patients such as surfing at Del Mar and golfing at Torrey Pines, and the recreational therapist was interested in offering tennis to give her patients another outlet.

“Once we got things going and started to receive feedback directly from the patients, we quickly realized, we’ve got something special going on here,” says Kappes.  Soon thereafter, the recreation therapist at the VA Medical Center in La Jolla started referring her patients to the program, too. 

Kappes has directed the program for more than 13 years, helping thousands of service members and veterans both in San Diego and across the country. The all-volunteer run program offers free weekly tennis clinics in San Diego but has also expanded to include annual, week-long, all-expense paid camps that bring 50 wounded warriors nationwide to town to learn about tennis and strengthen their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.

“I have a colleague who tells people who are just getting into tennis that it’s like a magic carpet. You get on it and can ride it to places and opportunities you never knew existed,” says Kappes. “We’re using the sport as a vehicle to bring people together in a safe, welcoming, inclusive environment where they're surrounded by people who can appreciate and understand what they’ve been through. Through that, we create camaraderie and friendships that provide additional lifelines and support networks.”

Although Kappes has more than 20 years of volunteer experience supporting nonprofit organizations — he’s currently the chairman/president of the board for two other veteran service organizations — he says he chose to attend USD for its nonprofit leadership and management program to learn more.

“I wanted to expand my knowledge in certain areas, and I felt the best way to do that was through formal education. USD was at the front of my mind because this program has existed for 20 years, has a strong alumni network, and is home to the Nonprofit Institute, which is a center of excellence for nonprofit research and education. All of that combined made it the perfect place for me to get the kind of additional knowledge I was seeking.”

Kappes says he will continue to work throughout the nonprofit sector in San Diego. As for those who have a similar path to Kappes, he has some advice. 

“It can be scary to think of doing something other than what you’ve been doing for a long time, and that fear can be paralyzing to walk away from something stable,” he shares. “But if you’re passionate about something or are unhappy with what you’re doing, volunteer. It is one of the best ways to ease into something different, expand your social and professional networks and discover what else is out there.”

— Kelsey Grey ’15 (BA)