Two men help a man climb a wall, in a depiction of a military exercise.

Massage therapist Melinda Hastings remembers a story that a client told her: The male Army serviceman saw Hastings for free massage through her Salute to Service program.

He presented with shoulder pain so significant that it caused him to fail the push-up portion of his physical training test.

In the Army, such tests determine whether a soldier is fit enough to do their job. If they fail twice, their unit can initiate a separation of service, which is career-ending.

After one massage session, he told Hastings, he was able to pass his physical training test and remain in his Army career.

Salute to Service is a program through which servicepeople can book free 20-minute massage sessions with Hastings at her DuPont, Washington, practice. Her target market is active-duty military on Army, Air Force and Navy bases.

Hastings is an Army spouse of 22 years and has seen the effects of stress-related health concerns up close with her military surrogate families and friends throughout the years.  

“I wanted to be able to give back because the military is near and dear to my heart,” she said.

Massage therapist Melinda Hastings
Melinda Hastings

The day Hastings realized military families could benefit from massage was 15 years ago, when she was attending a meeting of her Family Readiness Group, a support group made up of the families of an Army unit.

She started offering free informal table massages and chair massages to that group.  Then she branched out to her larger military community.

Today, she serves 160 military clients a year through Salute to Service.

Hastings spoke with MASSAGE Magazine about the challenges facing military servicepeople and their families, and how massage therapists can establish a program to serve the military — or another special population — in their communities.

Tips for a Successful Giving-Back Massage Program

1. Don’t Charge a Fee

Hastings usually charges $175 per 90-to-120-minute session. Military service members who book via the Salute to Service program pay nothing.

Hastings recommends offering a free program because discount programs don’t fully meet the needs of the group and may leave out some still needing your care. If you want to be altruistic and help a group of people who have a significant need, then don’t charge them, she says.

Build a regular, paying clientele in order to be able to extend free sessions to some clients without affecting your bottom line. Hastings is able to support her free Salute to Service program because she sees many paying clients.

“I am fortunate enough that I make plenty of money with my paying clients that I didn’t need to make additional money from this group of people — and I really wanted to offer something that was no strings attached,” she said.

2. Set Parameters for a Free Service

You need to create parameters that ensure you are reaching your target group. For example, a military ID ensures that Hastings is working with active duty service members.

If you choose to work with seniors over 65, for example, you can use their driver’s license. If you are working with an athletic group or team, maintain a current list of all the team members.

3. Fit Non-paying Clients into Your Schedule

Don’t take prime time away from paying clients to offer a free session. Instead, create times between paying clients to support your giving-back program.

“I fit the program around my existing schedule,” explained Hastings. “It works really well for me. I schedule an hour or more between clients so I have these little pockets of time that I can pop in [20-minute] Salute to Service sessions.”

She offers specific times, and non-paying clients have to choose from those specific times that fit Hastings’s schedule.

4. Include Your Giving-Back Program in Your Marketing

Offering a free program also catches the attention of your ideal paying clients and gains you authority in your area of specialization. Hastings has acquired new clients who learned about her through her Salute to Service program and is now booked a year in advance.

Market yourself to your target group on their Facebook group pages and city pages. Use word-of-mouth advertising by asking your clients to share what you do with others.

Ultimately, once your program gets going, your customers will refer more customers.

5. Learn About Your Community

Learn everything you can about your community and your targeted special population.

Hastings said having a deep understanding of the military community helped her identify their needs and customize their treatments. She understands the stress and fears they face in their day-to-day jobs, and that helps her understand what she can do to help them.

Understanding your target group also goes beyond the massage table. Learn about their activities, stress factors and daily way of life to gain a full perspective of the community and what their main health concerns are.

6. What Are You Passionate About?

Find a group you are passionate about helping. There are various groups that would benefit from a free service such as Salute to Service.

Such groups include first responders, seniors, service workers, teachers, single moms, social workers, volunteer programs — and many others with limited resources but tons of need.

“The military gives so much of their lives and so much of their bodies to our country and therefore to us,” said Hastings. “I wanted to give something back to them.”

7. Find Your Clients

Identify where your target group lives.

If you are targeting military service members, for example, it is helpful to live close to a military base and reach out to unit leaders or Family Readiness Group leaders.

If you don’t live near a military base, you can still focus on veterans and reach out to VFW groups.

Network with organizations that serve the clientele that will make up your giving-back program: Senior and volunteer centers, community programs, service workers’ unions and HR departments for first responders, as examples.

Provide a Safe Space

That Army soldier who passed his physical agility after a massage told Hastings that it wasn’t just the shoulder pain that brought him in for a session with her — it was the emotional and mental stress associated with the possible separation of service that was his real motivation to book a session.  

Massage therapy provides relief for people with muscular pain, tension and discomfort — and a safe space to relax and let go when mental and emotional stress factors are at play.

Creating a giving-back program that fulfils a need in your community can bring fulfilment to your massage practice as well as to the people who need, but can’t always afford, healthy, compassionate touch.

Author Aiyana Fraley

About the Author: Aiyana Fraley, LMT, is a freelance writer and health care professional with more than 17 years of experience in the massage field. She teaches yoga and offers sessions in massage, Reiki, sound healing and essential oils. Her articles for include “Advanced Massage Training Will Take Your Career to the Next Level — Just Ask These Massage Therapists” and “The Massage Therapist’s Guide to Assisted Stretching Techniques.”