NYC firefighters relax in Aspen
Aspen Times Staff Writer
Native New Yorker John Byrnes was a little skeptical at first. After all, the thought of traveling halfway across the country and spending a week in a stranger’s home didn’t seem like much of a relaxing vacation.
But in the end, Byrnes let his wife and children talk him into making a trip to Aspen. And, as a result, the strangers Byrnes was initially wary of are now considered close friends.
“They opened their door to us and treated us just like family,” Byrnes said of local residents Marius and Clare Sarger.
Byrnes, a member of the New York Fire Department’s Ladder Company 25, was just one of 77 New Yorkers who became part of the Roaring Fork Valley family last week. Twenty families – 10 groups of Sept. 11 widows and their children, and 10 groups of weary firefighters and their relatives – were invited to Aspen for seven long days of winter activities. The trip’s motto, “time in the mountains for young hearts to heal,” reveals its purpose – to allow those affected by the tragedy of Sept. 11 to leave behind a grieving New York City for a much-deserved vacation. The program, a joint venture by the students of Aspen Country Day School and A Grassroots Aspen Experience, was dubbed Kids to Kids due to the efforts of local children to help their East Coast peers.
The families arrived in Aspen last Sunday to begin a week of mountain sports and honorary gatherings. It was a jam-packed week, said 13-year-old Nicole Nolan, who made the trip to Aspen with her father, Terry, her mother Julie and younger sister Katie. Between the skiing and snowboarding lessons, the snowmobile trips and sightseeing tours, there wasn’t a great deal of down time.
“It’s not the kind of vacation I’m used to,” Nolan said. “We’ve been pretty busy this week.”
But meeting Cleo Abramian, a sixth-grader at Aspen Country Day School, and her classmates made the week’s tight schedule worthwhile, Nolan said.
“It shows that other people really care and can open their hearts,” she said.
The amount of caring people George Rodriguez encountered over the past week was almost overwhelming, the firefighter said. Rodriguez, a member of the NYFD’s Ladder Company 22, said he lost count how many times he was hugged during his brief stay in Aspen.
“It almost renders somebody speechless,” he said.
The week concluded Saturday night with a farewell party at the T-Lazy-7 Ranch. The party, like most of the past week’s special events, was full of local well-wishers who stopped by to say goodbye to newfound friends.
Aspen Mayor Helen Klanderud kicked off a series of speeches Saturday night as she commended the children behind the Kids to Kids program.
“Don’t ever forget to care, don’t ever forget to share, and don’t ever forget that the world is far bigger than the neighborhood you live in,” she said.
Though Gov. Bill Owens was invited to speak during the assembly Saturday night, Colorado Secretary of Technology Marc Holtzman, a resident of Carbondale, was on hand to speak on the governor’s behalf. Holtzman read a proclamation declaring Feb. 16 “Kids to Kids and New York Firefighters Day” in Colorado. He commended the NYFD on displaying “the true meaning of bravery, sacrifice and patriotism.
“And may lifelong friendships be born as a result of this week,” Holtzman said as he ended his presentation.
According to Byrnes and his hosts, they already have.
“It’s been a fabulous experience,” he said.
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Peter Arnold’s playing career ended after high school, but his time on the ice continues a few decades later. A longtime USA Hockey official and new Aspen resident, Arnold is searching for the next generation of hockey referees among the youth ranks here in the Roaring Fork Valley.