Thanksgiving trip lasts until Christmas
EAGLE COUNTY – “Down and out” only begins to describe the circumstances that Montana residents Phillip and Sylvia Curtiss and their toddler son, Jason, found themselves in a few days before Christmas.What began as a Thanksgiving trip to visit relatives in Michigan had turned into a month-long quest to get back home. When the transmission on their 1974 Ford Econoline van died on the top of Vail Pass, they were out of food, out of money, and felt like they were out of luck. In this valley, however, they weren’t totally out of resources. Some desperate phone calls by the couple eventually connected them with the local chapter of the Salvation Army. By the end of the day the Curtiss family was on the receiving end of a dozen different acts of kindness. By Christmas Day, the stranded family was back on the road, and headed to Montana.”This is just an incredibly kind community. It really makes us feel great the way the whole community jumped out to help these stranded people,” said the Salvation Army’s Tsu Wolin-Brown.Sylvia and Phillip Curtiss say they usually help others. They live in Missoula, Mont. where Phillip has worked as a roofer for the past 26 years. Sylvia is a stay-at-home mom.”They’ve been really nice – from Tsu to Steve that did the towing to the people in the motel,” Sylvia Curtiss said over hot breakfast at the Eagle Diner, which was paid for by an anonymous donor.
A shaky startThey were on their way to celebrate Thanksgiving with relatives in Michigan, but they never made it. The aging camper van several problems – carburetor, points, spark plugs, faulty wires. When Thanksgiving day arrived, and the family found themselves in a place Sylvia describes as “the middle of nowhere,” south of Chicago, the van’s transmission had died.They spent last of their cash on a used transmission and decided to abort the holiday trip and head home. Concerned about camping out in the van in cold weather, they decided on a more southerly route.About 200 miles later, when they were near the city of Mt. Vernon, Ill., the “new” transmission went out. For a week, they camped out in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart, and sold what possessions they had with them – a CB radio, a DVD player, their dog, and some personal items.They scraped together enough money for yet another transmission, and resumed their journey. The next transmission went out at the summit of Vail Pass. They pulled off into the closed rest area. Somebody gave them a ride into Vail.Completely out of money, they made random phone calls to local churches, seeking help. The Curtiss’ said they had helped similarly stranded people out through their own church in Montana. Asking for hand-outs was hard, they said.”Selling our things wasn’t so bad. Begging for help makes you feel worse than you already do,” Sylvia Curtiss said.
One more transmissionSomebody at the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration in Vail put them in touch with the local chapter of the Salvation Army. Wolin-Brown fielded the call. Within a half an hour, good things started happening.Steve Carver of Big Steve’s Towing towed the broken-down van, free of charge, to Lucas’ Towing in Gypsum. There, business owner Lucas Oseguera and his staff put a new transmission in the van and got it running again. Judy Countryman of Edwards gave the couple a Wal-Mart gift certificate, and a small amount of cash. The Silverleaf Suites in Eagle provided a room for a couple of nights at a special low rate reserved for stranded travelers – and the Salvation Army picked up the bill.An Eagle area family, eager to help a needy family during the holiday season, provided money for dinner and breakfast. Behind the scenes, Eagle Fire Chief Jon Asper and his staff were helping the stranded couple make the necessary connections.”They just needed help. They were down and out, and had a little one with them,” Carver said. “I just wanted to try and help them out, and let them get to where they were headed for Christmas.”
Oseguera said the Curtiss’ family situation was similar to the struggles he faced when he immigrated to this country from Honduras 18 years ago. Strangers helped him at that time, and he is in a position to help strangers now.”Sometimes you need to give back what you receive,” he said. “I don’t just work for money – I work to fill my heart with good.”Repairing the van took several days. Al Cristelet of Crazy Al’s Auto Body let the Lucas Towing mechanics work in his space. Asper and the fire department rounded up diapers for the family, and made sure they had meals during their stay.Tiffany Eaton-Bruckner and her staff at the AmericInn offered lodging for a couple of extra nights. Several citizens gave the family cash.On Christmas Day, the van was in running condition, and the Curtiss family left for Montana. They had two tanks full of gas and about $360 in cash for gas and food. Asper said at least 30 people helped get the family back on the road.”I’ll tell you something – they’re never going to forget Eagle, Colorado,” Asper said.