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America Supports You: Volunteers Make Disabled Vets Sports Clinic a Success

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colo., April 3, 2007 – As hundreds of severely disabled veterans attending the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic here discover new capabilities they never had or thought they’d lost, they’re also learning a thing or two about the giving spirit of volunteers supporting them all the way.

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Dave Gitchell, a volunteer instructor at the Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass, Colo., shows veteran Ricky Olson how to scuba dive. Photo by Donna Miles

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Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson and event organizers say the clinic, now in its 21st year, couldn’t happen without an army of volunteers who gave up vacation time and paid their own way to get here to work with the veterans.

More than 200 adaptive ski instructors flew in from all over the country to give 1,000 classes in Nordic and Alpine skiing during the six-day clinic. Others are running a full range of activities, giving veterans the opportunity to rock climb, scuba dive, trap shoot, snowmobile, and try their hand at sled hockey and wheelchair fencing.

Some transport veterans between venues, help to serve meals or provide important behind-the-scenes support. Still others, like country music stars Jo Dee Messina and John Corbett, will take center stage to entertain them.

Nicholson acknowledged the contribution the volunteers and corporate sponsors are making to some disabled veterans here — about 100 of them wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan -- during the clinic’s opening ceremonies.

“This is the quintessential American occasion,” Nicholson said. “We brought the cream of our country together, and then we matched it with something else that makes our country so great, and that is the volunteerism of our people — their willingness to give of themselves and their time and their treasury to help others.

“This is it,” he continued. “This is a real coming together, and I feel so privileged to be a part of this.”

Theresa Parks, logistics coordinator for the event, said it would be impossible to run the clinic without the volunteers' support. “They make it happen,” she said. “They bring so much enthusiasm and are so committed to making this the best event possible.”

Parks called the volunteers’ efforts a labor of love that translates into a supportive environment where veterans with severe disabilities can push their limits, and, ultimately, form lasting friendships, she said.

By mid-week, even first-timers at the clinic become “part of the family,” thanks to the volunteers and staff, she said. “There’s a real connection with the veterans and the staff and volunteers. There’s nothing like being a part of this.”

That gratification makes people say they “want to come back forever,” she said, and most make good on that promise and return year after year.

In fact, there's so little turnover in the volunteer force for the clinic that not everyone who would like to contribute gets the chance. “Our biggest problem -- and it’s hard to call this a problem -- is that we have to turn away hundreds of people every year who want to volunteer,” Parks said. “Our volunteers come and they stay.”

Among them is Darren Cook, who has been donating scuba gear and helping teach scuba at the clinic for the past 18 years.

“We get more out of it than the veterans do,” Cook said. “Their attitudes and their spirit (are) so inspiring. And you never, ever hear a single one of these guys complain.”

Cook recalls some particularly magic moments over the years that continue to bring him back. A veteran who had been in a wheelchair for 17 years told Cook, after scuba diving with him, that it was the first time since his injury that he hadn’t felt pain. About two years ago, a quadriplegic, buoyed by the water and inspired by the pool’s underwater speaker system, danced in the pool with his wife.

“She came to me afterwards with tears in her eyes and told me it was the first time in 30 years that she had danced with him without his chair,” Cook said.

Houston Cowan, founder and chief executive officer of Challenge Aspen, has been hosting the clinic’s ski program for the past eight years. Ski instructors representing 80 percent of the adaptive ski programs in the country give more than 200 lessons a day.

“That blows me away,” Cowan said. “These instructors work their tails off.”

Cowan acknowledged that for many people, the idea of taking to the mountaintop can be daunting. But he said he’s amazed at how quickly the veterans put their trust in their instructors and toss away their fears.

“The fact that these veterans have come through such adversity, then come here is incredible,” he said. “You see the friendship and bond between the veteran and instructor form immediately.”

Cowan teaches disabled people how to ski all season long, but calls the winter sports clinic the highlight of his year. “So many of these participants were injured in the line of fire while they were serving our country,” he said. “We’re just here giving back in our own little way what they have given so much to us.”

Bill Aronson, an adaptive ski instructor, returned here for his fifth year as a clinic volunteer. An Air Force veteran himself, Aronson called it a privilege to get the opportunity to work with disabled veterans.

“I learn more from these guys than they do from me,” he said. “These veterans are amazing. They’re amputees, they have no sight, but whatever their disability, they just don’t complain.”

Aronson said he recognizes the broad therapeutic effect the winter sports clinic has on the participants. But for this week, his personal goal is much more focused. “You try to make them forget about their injury while you’re with them skiing,” he said.

Country music star Jo Dee Messina, a first-timer to the clinic, said she jumped at the chance to participate when he learned about it during a USO tour. “I knew instantly that I wanted to help out any way I could,” she said.

Messina said the disabled veterans inspire her. “I think it’s amazing that these soldiers do not allow their injuries to slow them down, but instead continue to display courage and face challenges by participating in this clinic,” she said.

Actor-musician John Corbett learned about the event from his friend Bo Derek, and stopped by to watch the veterans try their hand at skiing before giving them a concert later this week.

“It just feels good to be here and support these guys and gals as they work so hard to have a little fun in their challenging lives,” he said.

Corbett said it’s exciting “to see people who say, ‘There’s no way I’m going to be able to do that’” prove that they can. “It makes me feel good to see them feeling good,” he said. “It’s that easy.”

Another new face this year is Dennis McAleese, new chairman of the Elks National Veterans Service Commission’s Veterans Leather Program.

McAleese set up a booth by the registration table to distribute fingerless leather gloves for the 270 wheelchair-bound veterans participating in this year’s clinic. The gloves, made from hides donated for the program, have extra padding in the palm and allow free use of the fingers, he explained.

The Elks have been supporting the winter sports clinic for 12 years, he said. This year, they donated $5,000 for the event, and Elk volunteers are serving lunch to veterans going for a gondola ride in Aspen or trying out cross-country skiing.

McAleese said he gets his gratification looking into the veterans’ faces when he hands them a new set of gloves. “They have their struggles, so if we can do a little something to make their way easier, that’s pretty rewarding,” he said.

The volunteerism on display here isn’t lost on participants at the winter sports clinic. Marine Staff Sgt. Nick Bennett, who was wounded in Iraq when a 107 mm rocket detonated near his Humvee and is about to have his 27th surgery at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., said he appreciates all the hard work and dedication that’s gone into making the clinic a success.

“Being here is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and there are a lot of people who are supporting us,” he said. “There’s been a lot of dedication and sacrifice on their part to make this all possible for us.”

Bennett said the best way he can show his appreciation — not just for the volunteers here, but also for those who have helped him throughout his rehabilitation -- is to throw himself into the events here and do the best he can at all of them.

“A lot of people have invested a lot of time and energy to get me where I am,” he said. “When they see me up on the slope, that’s my way of telling them, ‘Thank you.’”

Contact Author

R. James Nicholson

Related Sites:
America Supports You
Disabled American Veterans
Photo Essay: National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic

Related Articles:
VA Secretary Opens Disabled Winter Sports Clinic, Thanks Veterans
Disabled Vets Expecting Miracles as Winter Sports Clinic Opens

Click photo for screen-resolution imageVolunteer ski instructors help Donald Young, a Marine Corps veteran with a disabling spinal cord injury, down the mountain during the Disabled Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass, Colo. Department of Veterans Affairs photo  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageDennis McAleese, chairman of the Elks National Veterans Service Commission’s Veterans Leather Program, chats with Fred Garraway, an Army veteran who received a new pair of leather wheelchair gloves during the Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass, Colo. Photo by Donna Miles  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageActor-musician John Corbett chats with Michael Rasch, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam, during the Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass, Colo. Photo by Donna Miles  
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