Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A Return to the Virgin Islands

If I must sit and wait patiently for the time to pass before undergoing a surgery that sounds more like voodoo than science....

(This little guy was waiting at the door of the airport in St John)

then it is best to ruminate about the highlight of my year....another visit to my son, Tom, in the Virgin Islands.

It was the first week in August and I had closed out Don's apartment, said my 'farewells' to friends in Florida and realized I was a mere hop, skip and ferryboat ride from St John, Virgin Islands.

(Tom Larson)

Tom had been asking me for several years to come for the Team River Runner Fundraiser that was held the first of August so it seemed a good time to see what he was so excited about.

When I arrived we were still a few days away from the main event--The Chaotic Kayak Race--so Tom and I spent a little time exploring while I learned more about his pet project. 

As we wandered the Island I began to realize just how important this event had become to everyone.  Residents, business owners and friends kept coming up to me and telling me how 'special' my son was.  Well, I knew that already but every Mom likes to hear it anyway.

The history of this St. John event began in Sept. 2009 when a small struggling group of wounded veterans came to St. John for therapy while dealing with a multitude of physical and mental injuries. Tom, being retired from 20 years in the Coast Guard, just naturally gravitated towards any veteran.  After an evening of getting acquainted he found out this small band of volunteers and vets were running a program centered around white water river rafting for soldiers that were missing limbs, or blind, or suffering from PTSD--or much more.  They were veterans (mainly of Iraq and Afghanistan but not restricted to those wars) that were struggling to get their lives back, plus more than anything else, to be there for each other.

From the TRR website:

Team River Runner envisions a national network which creates innovative paddling programs designed to assist with the recovery of those injured while serving our country. Through paddle sports, TRR volunteers and partners provide local communities unique opportunities for the active, safe and positive support of healing service members and their families.

There are chapters all throughout the US but the trips to St. John were very expensive and, even though the Virgin Islands offered the unique opportunity to kayak in open ocean and in amazing surroundings, they were out of funds for making such expensive trips.  So Tom, his wife, Amy, and friends John and Brandi decided to stage a kayak race to raise some money and perhaps bring the TRR back again the following year.

That very first year they shocked themselves and everyone else by raising $16,000 from some very enthusiastic island residents, business owners and one very wealthy tourist.  They were off and running!

The funds covered airfare, food, and ground transportation.  The veterans stay for a week in beachside cabins in the National Park while, during the day, they work in the water with the trainers, volunteers and caregivers. In the evenings they come into Cruz Bay for dinner and to meet and be welcomed by a grateful community.

(The Sadie Sea, Tom's boat)

The fund raiser has been held on the first weekend in August, every year since that first one.  John and his wife are no longer on the Island but Tom is still at it and each year the Island has raised more money.


The amount of money raised determines how many veterans and volunteers will be able to take part in the program that occurs the first week of November.  The veterans come to the program a number of ways but primarily through Walter Reed Hospital.

 This year there are double amputees, several blind vets, and others with challenges that require special fittings for paddles, snorkeling equipment, wheelchairs, and a lot more.  Not your usual list of items for a vacation to the islands.

To raise funds the businesses on the Island are encouraged to vie against each other in a Kayak race.  They raise money from their friends, neighbors and customers and for each $100 they raise they get a 5 second head start in the race.  Tom anchors the Sadie Sea off the coast and the Kayakers must paddle out, around the Sadie Sea and return to the beach.  Sounds easy, right?  (More about that later) There are 32 kayaks with 8 heats, then four, and finally a winner.  The race takes place all afternoon on one of the most popular picnic beaches on the Island.

As Tom and I circled the Island we kept visiting small bars, restaurants and boat rental places and Tom would greet them with,  "The meeting is on Saturday to sign up your team.  Your competitor across the street says he is going to beat your butt this year.  Are you going to let him get away with that?"  Kaching! Another $100 bucks in the kitty!  And through it all the Islanders kept saying, "We'll see you there.  Great job, Tom."  And I was beginning to see how important this was to Tom and to the Islanders.

Please check out the Team River Runner website or their blog.

And if you have one-and-a-half hours, please watch this amazing documentary "On Me" produced by Vimeo:

More to come.................

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