Vail Veterans Program wraps up winter events
Local nonprofit focused on one family at a time this season
The Vail Veterans Program has just finished its 18th winter season. But this season of providing true rest, relaxation and respite to injured veterans was very different.
The program through its history has brought groups of injured veterans for several days in the mountains. The program has rejuvenated spirits for both veterans and their families both with on-mountain activities and off-mountain get-togethers.
In this year of COVID-19, those group gatherings couldn’t happen. Instead, the program flew individual veterans, caregivers and families into Vail.
Program founder Cheryl Jensen said since January, 14 veterans, 19 spouses or caregivers and 28 kids came to Vail — about two family groups per week.
“I’m in awe that we were able to do this at all, considering COVID, not just in Colorado but in the places they were flying from,” Jensen said. Getting people to Vail was further complicated by the fact that badly injured and disabled veterans are about the last people who should be exposed to the virus.
One of the veterans, Sua Tuimalealiifano, came to Vail with his family. Tuimalealiifano, a quadriplegic due to injuries sustained in Afghanistan, is one of the people who simply can’t get sick.
Still, the family came.
Jensen recalled that she took a run with Tuimalealiifano. He’d been essentially duct-taped into a mono-ski and was wearing both a mask and a gaiter.
When photo time came, Jensen asked him to take off his face coverings and smile.
Smiling the whole time
“He said, ‘Smile? I’ve been smiling the whole time,’” Jensen recalled.
That smile came easily. Tuimalealiifano’s wife, Shannon, wrote to the program after their visit, which included the couple’s three children, praising all those who contributed to the trip.
“This year, the Vail Veterans Program allowed our family to go on the first family vacation we have ever taken,” Shannon Tuimalealiifano wrote. “My husband has attended programs to learn how he can participate in adaptive sports but never to the inclusion of more than a required caregiver escort. This ski trip was the first time my children had ever been in snow and it was the most amazing family bonding experience! My husband was so proud to show the children what he could do and to watch them quickly build their confidence on the slopes, graduating from the bunny slope to the green trails in only 4 days!”
In her thank-you letter, Shannon Tuimalealiifano wrote that the program helped her as much as it did her husband.
“I don’t know how to explain how powerful it was for my husband to feel like a: 1) ‘normal’ father to be able to share such a unique experience with his children as a family vacation, and 2) a ‘normal’ husband who could romance his wife with the backdrop of the snow covered mountains. Not only were we able to share memories as a family we never would have been able to otherwise, but because Vail Veterans Program allowed me personally to participate as a mom and a wife — not as the needed caregiver.”
Expanding the mission
Stories like this are common with program participants, and the reason the program has continued. Depending on the progress of the fight against the virus, Jensen said there may be a more traditional program, with group sizes perhaps half of that they’ve been in the past.
All these programs are offered at no cost to veterans and their families, with the nonprofit relying on donations to do its work.
The pandemic has also prompted the Vail Veterans program to expand into the “Our Mission Continues” project, an effort that provides services ranging from financial help to counseling and help for caregivers.
Jensen said she expects that project to become part of the Vail Veterans Program’s regular offerings.
“It’s too important” to give up that effort, Jensen said. Just this year, Our Mission Continues has provided just more than $225,000 in support in less than a year.
“We typically haven’t done one-to-one (service) in this way,” Jensen said. “It’s allowed us to really focus on individual needs.”
While much of the summer group program isn’t yet set, the program will bring three families this year out to Black Mountain Ranch north of McCoy for a week of fun thanks to the May family, which owns the ranch and has long supported the Vail Veterans Program.
“We’ll have a pretty full summer, for sure,” Jensen said.
For more information, go to vailveteransprogram.org.