When a service member returns from combat wounded, their life and the lives of their family are forever changed. For many veterans, recovery is a long road and can mean a considerable amount of time spent in a hospital or VA center. This week’s Friday Focus organization, Vacations for Vets, plays a special role in the recovery process by providing service members with experiences that both lift their spirits and allow them to spend time with their loved ones. Board president Connie Pennington spoke to us on behalf of her organization for this week’s interview.
Q: Tell us about your organization (who you serve, what you do, etc.).
A: Our organization serves recovering service members and their families by offering weekend retreats to those undergoing treatment at local military hospitals and VA centers. Recovery is based on many factors, and one of those factors is family time. We have families that travel from different states just to spend the weekend with their service member away from the hospital setting. Some of the service members haven’t seen their families in months—the costs associated with visiting are just too high. We supply all lodging, food and entertainment for all guests. We host 5 events a year; weather permitting, we take them boating, tubing and kayaking. We also take them to local organizations for tours and entertainment, and invite public groups to come out and give demos. Past participants have included: the Pax Aero Flyers (remote control planes), search and rescue dog team demos, Superheroes of Southern Maryland, local fire departments and Clydesdale horse carriage rides. We also bring out professional face painters and scrapbookers, and we’ve done Mary Kay facials, chair massages and more.
Q: What is your favorite “moment” (example of how your organization helped)?
A: My most favorite moment was when a double amputee, Juan, said to me “Miss Connie, I thought I would be sitting in my chair all day bored, but I didn’t. I can do everything, I didn’t know I could still do those things.” He was very emotional and patting his chest while he spoke. He kayaked by himself, he drove a golf cart by himself and he went tubing by himself. Of course, we had 2 medics close by at all times, but given the chance, he was able to participate in all the activities.
Q: What is your biggest challenge?
A: Our biggest challenge is the turnover rate of guests. When I receive the list from the hospital of guests that are cleared to attend, it will have about 15 service members’ names on it. By the time I am done calling them all, the list is in half. The week before the event, the list is even smaller. Because of their injuries or illness, the doctors will often remove them from the list at the last minute, creating a void that is almost impossible to fill on short notice. At this point, the meals, lodging and activities have all been reserved, so we start contacting other agencies to see if they have someone to come at the last minute.
Of course, another challenge is the financial side. The handicapped facility we rent has raised their rates this year, and the cost of food and supplies has increased as well. The typical weekend retreat costs approximately $2,200, depending on the number of guests and any special needs that need to be met. Our 501(c)(3) has been submitted, but not approved yet. If you wish to make a donation, please make checks payable to So. Md. Vacation for Vets and mail to the address below. The donation can be claimed on your MD taxes. We will send you a thank you letter with our EIN on it for tax purposes.
So. Md. Vacations for Vets
22673 Pops Way
California, MD 20619
Q: What advice can you give someone looking to work at a non-profit?
A: Be committed. Don’t sign up if you don’t want to help.
Q: How can people get involved with your organization? Are there any upcoming events?
A: Our website, vac4vets.org, has a volunteer application on it. Once it is completed, just send it to me and we will do a background check before releasing any information about upcoming events. It is in our agreement with the hospitals and treatments centers that we do not release the dates the service members will be here to the public—those dates are only released to volunteers who have passed the background check and the service providers. We also have a fundraiser set up for March 16 (the flier will be on our website shortly).