As nearly 400 disabled veterans enjoy the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic here, officials credit a legion of volunteers and sponsors as the driving force behind the clinic's success.
The six-day event, which opened here March 30 and continues through April 4, gives severely disabled veterans the opportunity to 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 600 volunteers.
In addition, 76 sponsors have joined forces with the Department of Veterans Affairs and Disabled American Veterans to fund the $1 million program, according to Edward Hartman, DAV's national director for voluntary services.
"None of this is possible without the power of all the people who make it happen," said Sandy Trombetta, who came up with the concept of the winter sports clinic and has served as VA's national director for the program throughout its 22-year history.
Trombetta praised the sponsors who finance the activities and volunteers who return year after year, giving up vacation time and paying their own way to get here to work with the veterans. "They all want to be part of something bigger than themselves," he said. "What you see here is people really giving back to others. It still leaves me awestruck."
Theresa Parks, event coordinator for the past five years, said it would be impossible to run the clinic without the volunteers' support. "What they do is huge," she said. "They all make such a commitment. There just isn't a better group of people to work with than our volunteers."
Parks called their 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. "They treat the veterans like family, and embrace them like a brother or son or father," he said. "There's a real sense of connection that takes place here."
Among the volunteers are more than 200 certified adaptive ski instructors, including current and former members of the U.S. Disabled Ski Team, coaches and support staff.
Kevin Ridley, an adaptive ski instructor from Boston, is a first-time volunteer at the winter sports clinic after working with disabled veterans in New England for the past 12 years. "This is an awesome event, and what they are doing for these veterans is amazing," said Ridley, a Vietnam veteran.
Like other volunteers at the clinic, Ridley said he gets more out of his volunteerism than the participants, particularly when he sees them react after a run down the mountainside.
"Just to see the smiles on their faces and to see their confidence built up, with their recognition of what they can do, is the reward," he said.
While ski instructors make up a big percentage of the volunteer force, many volunteers at the winter sports clinic work in other capacities, running a full range of activities.
Among them is John Ognie, a Denver resident who has been volunteering at the clinic since 1995, most of those years teaching scuba diving. "It's a great thing for them because of the sense of freedom they get," he said. "They get in the pool and they don't want to come out."
A volunteer at the VA hospital in Denver for more than 20 years and a disabled veteran himself, Ognie said he gets a special sense of gratification helping his fellow veterans.
"I enjoy it," he said. "I just want to be here to help the veterans and their families."
Elizabeth Lowery, an employee at the VA medical center in Grand Junction, Colo., is volunteering at the clinic for the third year to schedule veterans for a variety of activities off the ski slopes, load them on buses and accompany them to the events.
"It's awe-inspiring just being here," she said. "Once you come one time, you always come back. There's just nowhere else you want to be."
Some, like eight volunteers from Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., pick up veterans at the airport and transport them between venues during the event. Air Force Master Sgt. Bryan Malkowski of the 63rd Aircraft Maintenance Unit is back for his second year at the clinic helping any way he can.
"It's really rewarding to see their faces when they're doing something that they thought they would never get to do," he said. "Seeing them enjoy themselves is the best reward ever."
Gretchen Annan, also from the Grand Junction VA medical center, is here for her second clinic, helping veterans move their trays through the food lines in the dining room and get settled at their tables to eat three meals served each day.
Annan said she feels honored to get to work with such exceptional people who refuse to let a disability get in the way of living life to its fullest.
"I'm so thankful to be here, and nothing can make my day happier than seeing someone confronted with so many challenges still making it through the day," she said. "It's really inspiring."
Other volunteers, like John Corbett, known for his roles in "Sex and the City" and "My Big, Fat Greek Wedding" will take center stage later this week with his band to entertain the veterans. In addition, actress Bo Derek, honorary chair of VA's national rehabilitation special events, will attend activities throughout the week.
The Snowmass community has opened its arms to the participants, too, with local restaurants and hotels treating participants to two parties in the Snowmass Village mall. During the afternoon leading up to the opening ceremony, more than 10 local restaurants hosted a "Taste of Snowmass" event for attendees. An even larger event is slated for the clinic's final day, said Allison Campbell, Silvertree Hotel's director of conference services and coordinator for the event.
"Everybody wants to be a part of it," she said. "This is everyone's most favorite event of the year, and our way of giving back to these guys and girls who gave for us. ... It's a definite community thing, and I'm glad to be a part of it."
The gratification of providing support to disabled veterans makes volunteers "want to come back forever," Parks said. In fact, there's so little turnover in the clinic's volunteer force that Parks said she finds herself having to turn down offers from others who would like to contribute.
"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," she said. "Our volunteers come, and they stay."
The volunteers' dedication isn't lost on participants here.
"These volunteers are great people," said Jarod Behee, an Army veteran blinded during operations in Iraq who's attending the winter sports clinic for the first time this year. "I'm really thankful that they're here. They really make it special for us."
Hope Cooper, an Air Force veteran medically retired in 1989, said she's overwhelmed by the outpouring of volunteers who travel here "on their own dime to help us with everything and anything."
"They're giving of their lives to us this week, and what they do is heartfelt," she said. "And do you want to know the true reason they do it? It's because they love us. Knowing that is powerful, and it's healing."
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service