More than 600 volunteer at this year’s National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass |

More than 600 volunteer at this year’s National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass

Erica Robbie
The Aspen Times
Volunteers assist disabled veteran James Kempner, of Reno, as he takes off on the NASTAR race course at the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times |

What better way to thank those who served our country than to be of service to them?

That’s the mentality of some of the more than 600 people who drop everything for one week — jobs, family, a paycheck — and travel from all over the U.S. to the Roaring Fork Valley to volunteer at the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic.

“When (the veterans) thank me, sometimes I can’t respond because I choke up,” clinic volunteer Bobbie Benson said.

“I say, ‘You’re thanking me?’,” Benson said, tears swelling.

“You don’t go away (from the clinic) the same person. You can’t.” -Karen Foster, National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic volunteer

The Winter Sports Clinic, produced by Disabled American Veterans and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, is the largest rehabilitative program of its kind in the world.

With about six times the number of clinic volunteers than Disabled American Veterans and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs employees combined, the volunteer efforts are vital to the program.

“We couldn’t run the event without (the volunteers),” said Elaine Buehler of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, who works as a media coordinator for the clinic. “There’s just no way.”

A staff of fewer than 100 from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and 10 from the Disabled American Veterans work on-site at the clinic, which is mostly based in Snowmass Village, according to Buehler.

Despite the long days and lists of responsibilities, most volunteers “cannot get enough,” Buehler said, pointing to both the clinic’s volunteer wait lists and “extremely low (volunteer) turnover” as an example.

“You can’t rid of our volunteers. You literally can’t,” Buehler said. “They’re so loyal that to find room for new volunteers is difficult.”

Many of the volunteers, like Benson, said that being a part of the disabled veterans clinic is “the best thing” they will do all year.

“I live in Los Angeles,” Benson said. “It is a completely different feeling being here, to be of service, to be selfless.”

“And I’m not always that way in Los Angeles. I’m really not,” Benson said, laughing.

The food and beverage volunteer of two years noted that she waited for four years on the volunteer wait list before securing her spot, which she has no plans of abandoning.

For 72-year-old former major league baseball umpire Larry Barnett, volunteering with disabled veterans marks some of the most important moments of his life.

“Of all the things I’ve done in my life, other than my family — and I’ve been blessed to be around superstar baseball players — when I go to (Veterans Affairs) hospitals, that’s where I met the real superstars,” Barnett, a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs volunteer, said at the clinic on Wednesday.

“Those guys are the ones that gave us the right to play those silly games.”

Others volunteers at the clinic, such as Teresa Arciola, said that watching some veterans overcome the most immense physical and mental barriers — like rock climbing without any limbs — inspires and challenges them in their own lives.

“It does absolutely inspire you to do things, like I’m kind of (a) chicken,” Arciola explained. “But this week, I snowshoed. I fell, but I got back up. I climbed the rock wall.”

Watching disabled athletes thrive in their adaptive sports, Arciola said, “It’s like, how dare I not try?”

Seven-year-clinic volunteer Karen Foster said what brings her back to Snowmass each year is that she never leaves the way she came.

“You don’t go away the same person,” Foster said. “You can’t.”

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