America Supports You: Volunteers Make Disabled Vets Clinic a Success
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colo., Apr. 6, 2006 Veterans Affairs Secretary R. James Nicholson, former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and event organizers praised the army of volunteers who are making the 20th National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic here a success.
Patrick Murphy, a ski instructor from Breckenridge, Colo., and volunteer at the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, helps Army veteran Jonathon Pruden, who lost his right leg in Iraq, down the slopes at Snowmass Mountain. Photo by Donna Miles
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The event, which kicked off April 2 and continues through tomorrow, gives more than 350 severely disabled veterans the opportunity ski, rock climb, scuba dive, trapshoot, snowmobile, and try their hand at sled hockey and wheelchair fencing, among other activities -- all with the help of more than 500 volunteers.
"I'm very proud of all the volunteers and staff who do such a selfless and competent job of setting this all up and then working with the veterans," Nicholson said during an interview with American Forces Press Service.
Nicholson said he brought together the coaches, ski instructors and support staff participating in this year's event to thank them for their contributions. But, he said, they told him, "You don't have to thank us. We get a lot more out of this than the athletes."
"That's what makes this event so special," Nicholson said. "It brings together people who really care about these veterans and want to make a contribution."
Earlier in the week, Wolfowitz, now president of the World Bank, raved about "the extraordinary effort" volunteers put forward in making the clinic a success. "They are an inspirational group, and they are truly dedicated to what they are doing here," he said.
Paul Jackson, national commander of Disabled American Veterans, which cosponsors the event with the VA, said the "tremendous caring of the volunteers" enables veterans to stretch their wings and learn from each other. "The veterans see the support here, and they know that someone really cares," he said.
That supportive environment provides the opportunity for veterans with severe disabilities to push their limits, he said. "It's where they get a chance to not only test themselves, but also to be among their peers and see each other do things," he said.
Jackson also praised the support of sponsors, who through donations of services and dollars make the Winter Sports Clinic possible. "We (DAV) couldn't do this alone, and the VA couldn't do this alone," he said. "The sponsors have contributed a lot to make this happen, and they consistently come back year after year to ensure this event is a success."
Rick Townsend, the clinic's volunteer coordinator for the past 12 years, said it would be impossible to run the clinic without volunteers' support. "We've had volunteers since the very first one, and it was the volunteers who made the program happen," he said.
Townsend called serving America's disabled veterans a labor of love for volunteers, who typically return year after year to assist at the clinic. "It's kind of hard to come up here and do this event and not want to come back," he said.
In fact, he said, there's so little turnover in the volunteer force for the clinic that he's got a waiting list of more than 100 people wanting to participate. "Our attribution rate is just two to eight a year," Townsend said. "No one wants to drop out. They are all committed volunteers."
Among those committed volunteers is Chris Devlin-Young, a disabled veteran and Paralympian who's back at the clinic for the 17th time, serving as an instructor and racing coach. "Skiing gave me my life back, and now this is my opportunity to help other disabled veterans experience that, too," he said.
Daniel Johnson, who lost his legs in a boating accident while serving in the Navy, now volunteers at the clinic slopeside to help others make the breakthrough it helped him make. "This opened my eyes to the possibilities of what I can do," he said.
By working with other veterans, particularly those just learning to live with their disabilities, Johnson said, he hopes to give them a new perspective about what's possible. "Disability is just a fact of life, and it doesn't have to limit what you can do," he said. "The best rehabilitation is to see other people doing things and to see that this is not the end."
While ski instructors make up a big percentage of the volunteer force, many volunteers at the Winter Sports Clinic work in other capacities, helping run a full range of activities or providing behind-the-scenes support.
Among them is Wes Ferson, a ski instructor from California who has taken vacation time for 19 of the clinic's 20 years to help run the rock-climbing wall. "It's like 'old-home week' here," he said, shrugging off any suggestion that he's doing anything notable. "We just do this for what we get out of it."
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Richard Layton is among seven volunteers here from Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., to help transport veterans to and from the airport and between activity venues. Here for his third year, Layton said there's no way to adequately describe "the joy and the happiness of meeting all the people here and seeing the progression they make" during the six-day clinic. "You see the apprehension when they first get here, and by the end of the week, they're a whole new person. They don't want to leave," he said. "That's what makes me love coming here."
Air Force Master Sgt. Randy Voy, also from Luke Air Force Base, called the opportunity to volunteer at the clinic "remarkable." With just over 20 years of military service himself, Voy said he has a special appreciation for what the veterans have contributed. "They've given the ultimate sacrifice, and their lives have been altered forever," he said. "The way I look at it, this is my chance to give back to the guy who served before me."
Dixie Aljets, a volunteer from Des Moines, Iowa, has been helping with food and beverage service at the clinic for the past 19 years. She said it's the veterans themselves who keep bringing her back year after year. "You get to know the people and you just love them," she said. "They inspire us. This just gets to your heart and soul."
Karen Ott, who works fulltime at the VA's Washington, D.C., headquarters and is volunteering at the clinic for the second year, said the experience gives special meaning to the work she does every day. "I don't get to see patients when I'm at the national office, so this gives me the chance to interact directly with the veterans, which I love," she said. "They're my favorite people in the world. They have such enthusiasm and such a positive attitude, and you can't help but catch some of it and take it away with you."
Dr. Donna Blake, chief of rehabilitation at the Denver VA Medical Center, said volunteering at the Winter Sports Clinic helps her see the fruits what she and other VA health care professionals are working to achieve. "This is the pinnacle of what we do every day," she said. "People get excited in the hospital when they achieve something that allows them to become more independent. But that doesn't make memories. This is what makes memories. And it opens up a whole new world for them."
Matt Lucas, an employee at the VA Medical Center in Grand Junction, Colo., spends his days at the Winter Sports Clinic maintaining and fixing adaptive ski equipment. "It's a lot of work, but when we see these guys out there having fun and smiling, we know that we're changing their lives," he said. "It makes me feel really good being a part of it."