Geneva gym owner aims to give military veterans purpose, sense of community

  • Joe Donar, 35, of Woodridge, tries to create a sense of community for his fellow veteran clients at CrossFit Kokua gym in Geneva.

    Joe Donar, 35, of Woodridge, tries to create a sense of community for his fellow veteran clients at CrossFit Kokua gym in Geneva. John Starks | Staff Photographer

Updated 3/28/2019 6:39 AM

Joe Donar views his life as a book.

You grow from each experience.


You learn from each character.

But as you keep turning the page, you eventually get to a new chapter.

Donar joined the Army in 2005 with a sense of duty to serve his country.

He served on a reconnaissance team, was stationed in Hawaii and was deployed to Iraq twice, once for 15 months and the second time for a year.

When he left the military in 2010, Donar moved onto the next chapter, focusing on his education, his career and his family.

He never looked back, he said, but many other veterans aren't so lucky.

Some carry their military experiences with them wherever they go.

Since opening a gym in Geneva, CrossFit Kokua, Donar says he has tried to create a sense of community for his clients who have left the military and are returning to civilian life.

The workouts are made up of challenging, goal-oriented tasks that, for some veterans, parallel the grittiness and discipline of basic training.

"It's nice to give veterans a task or a purpose, and I feel CrossFit definitely delivers that," said Donar, 35, who lives in Woodridge. "A lot of them live in the past ... so to get them out and experience new things and talk to people, I think that's very beneficial."

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After finding his passion for fitness in the Army, Donar went on to get his bachelor's degree in kinesiology and master's in exercise physiology from Elmhurst College.

When he graduated, he managed corporate gyms before opening a CrossFit facility in Westmont with a co-owner.

He eventually sold his half the business to his partner and, in 2015, opened CrossFit Kokua -- a Hawaiian word that describes the spirit of kindness, community and a desire to help others.

Veterans now make up about 15 percent of Donar's clientele, he said, noting he used to offer free memberships before switching to discounted rates for former and active military personnel.

His gym also hosts community events and fundraisers, which often help veterans integrate with other civilians.

"I look for any way to kind of reach out and help veterans," Donar said. "They need a sense of purpose, typically, so to give them a duty and obligation, I think that helps them a little bit more."

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