- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Southern Maryland Vacations for Vets program offers wounded or sick service members and their families a free weekend getaway in St. Mary’s County.
“We bring them down on a Friday afternoon,” said Connie Pennington of California, president of the Vacations for Vets board.
Referred to the program from places like Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, the Washington VA Trauma/PTSD Center and Quantico Naval Health Clinic, the veterans are brought to Greenwell State Park in Hollywood in vans provided by the Spring Dell Center for one of the four or five weekends each year that Vacations for Vets offers. Greenwell rents its handicap-accessible lodge to the program at a discounted rate.
“When they first come, they’re a little unsure,” said Cindy Dale of Lexington Park, a longtime Vacations for Vets volunteer.
The veterans selected are all recovering from some trauma or injury and are undergoing treatment at a military facility. They’re going through a difficult time.
“By the time they’re leaving on Sunday, they’re smiling and appreciative,” Dale said. “It’s very, very rewarding.”
The idea is to give them a chance to relax with their family in a quiet country setting and a chance to escape the hospital routine. It is a mini-vacation from everything else going on in their lives. Over the program’s five-year history, it has provided weekends away from 130 veterans and 265 family members.
The weekend usually starts with a trip to Solomons for a boat ride and to visit the Calvert Marine Museum. The participants come back to Greenwell for a pizza dinner, paid for and delivered by another volunteer. Saturday activities can include a trip to visit the Greenwell horses, some time on the river in a kayak or a power boat and exploration of the park on one of the golf carts that is chauffered by a volunteer.
There might be demonstrations provided by a search and rescue dog team. There might be free facials or face painting or craft class, depending on what activities have been offered by volunteers for that weekend. Participants also have the option of not doing anything special at all, and just relaxing with a book or sitting out by the water.
“They have a ball. They love it,” Pennington said. She said that one vet described the experience to her as “like a family reunion from the side of the family you like.”
Providing these weekends requires organization, community support and an army of volunteers.
“I couldn’t do it by myself,” said Pennington, who is the only person who has been with the organization since its inception. “Everything we do is geared around volunteers ... We stay very busy.”
Volunteers make the beds, prepare the food, pilot the boats, drive the golf carts, keep the lodge tidy, watch young children if requested and do whatever it takes so the guests are taken care of. Outside of the vacation weekends, volunteers also help with fundraising.
Pennington said she is involved with Vacations for Vets because she is a veteran herself, she is the mother of a soldier, her father was a Korean War veteran; “I could go on and on,” she said.
Dale helps with the program for similar reasons. She has a personal connection to the veterans and their families. “We had a son who was in Iraq who passed away from PTSD,” she said. “I feel like this is the one way I can give back to the wounded.”
Patty Dreher of Leonardtown has been volunteering with the program for about a year. “I don’t have a specific duty ... Connie assigns me where she needs me,” Dreher said.
“It’s a way to be able to pay back a little bit. It’s a nice way to say thank you,” she said.
Her son is a Marine who has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan and her husband is retired military. While both are unscathed from the experience, “as a mother of a Marine, it’s never far from your mind,” Dreher said. “My family has been so fortunate.”
And she said that while volunteering for Vacations for Vets can be hard work, “it is a lot more fun than I thought it would be. It’s so fun to watch the kids and their families,” she said.
Pennington said she has about 72 volunteers on her roster, with about 30 of them being regular helpers. But she said she could always use more.
She is interested in volunteers who are at least 14, but younger children are encouraged to participate if their parents are volunteers also. Vacations for Vets can use volunteers for direct work with the veterans and their families or those who would prefer to work behind the scenes. “If someone had a talent they wanted to share, we’d love that,” she said.
Pennington also said she doesn’t require any long-term commitment from volunteers. They can come out to help with one event or just one of the weekends, if they’d like.
But she suspects they would get drawn in right away and want to do more.
“I love it. We have as much fun as the people” who come to visit, Pennington said.