As the 20th anniversary of the catastrophic 9/11 attacks approaches, a local charity with a national mission hopes that valley residents will come together to help honor and support the sacrifices of veterans.
Challenge America, a broad-reaching veterans’ nonprofit, will host its inaugural Remembering 9/11 Memorial Weekend with a dinner, live auction and concert on Sept. 10th and a golf tournament Sept. 11, both at the Aspen Glen Club.
It’s designed as a significant fundraiser for the innovative, Basalt-based organization, which has helped thousands of veterans in the U.S. with specialized resources and solutions that complement and enhance the lives of former service members.
Dallas Blaney, PhD, serves as executive director of the 501(3)c nonprofit. Blaney, himself a Navy veteran, came to the Roaring Fork Valley after a career in higher education, and said that September’s weekend of events – and its theme, Standing United – reflects Challenge America’s larger mission to give back to the veterans’ community.
“If there was ever a moment for Americans to show their resilience, that was it,” he said. “We all stood shoulder to shoulder on that terrible day twenty years ago, coming together to stand united as a people. Our event offers an opportunity to revive this feeling of unity and celebrate the brave men and women whose service and sacrifice keep us safe.”
Unique programs provide support and help veterans heal
Challenge America’s programming takes a slightly different tack than the more than 40,000 other veterans’ organizations that have emerged in the U.S. in recent years. That itself is a remarkable number, Blaney notes, considering the lack of support and resources Vietnam-era veterans often experienced when they returned home from combat.
The post-9/11 era, he said, has instead seen a flourishing of veteran service organizations. Founded in 2009, Challenge America has earned national recognition for its innovative efforts to address the unmet needs of Veterans and their families. For example, Challenge America partnered with the VA to develop products and programs to address the many challenges faced by injured veterans. That includes an entire initiative devoted to the design and manufacture of aids to daily living, as well as a one-of-a-kind art program created to offer a new avenue of expression and community connection for vets.
“Our organization leverages technology and the creative arts to improve the lives of veterans and their families,” he said. “What we’re doing – well, no one else is doing that. And the feedback we’ve received is nothing but praise. Veterans tell us that we’ve totally transformed their lives, or that they’ve finally been able to sit down with someone who cares, listens and really incorporates them into their programs. It’s been a great way for vets to connect with one another and overcome the trauma of their military experience.”
To that end, Challenge America’s trademark programs include the Military Sisterhood Initiative, the largest peer-support network for female veterans in the country, serving more than 5,000 women in the U.S and 19 countries.
The MSI is complemented by Challenge America’s Makers for Veterans, which has teamed injured veterans with entrepreneurs and inventors to come up with dozens of specialized tools and technological aids, ranging from more stabilized support canes to a virtual service dog app. During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Blaney said the organization also received a special request from the VA to create 50 products designed for first responders and essential workers, which produced new tools including a UV light decontamination system.
Tickets and sponsorship opportunities for the Remembering 9/11 Memorial Weekend are still available and include dinner and a concert by New York’s Alan Harris Quintet, featuring the acclaimed jazz-soul vocalist and guitarist who has been called “the heir apparent to Nat King Cole.”
For more information on the fundraiser or to purchase tickets, visit the event webpage at 911golf.org or call 970-279-1323.
Making an impact through art
But it is Challenge America’s Veteran Arts Community that might be having the longest-lasting impact, Blaney said. The organization has sponsored various artistic endeavors designed to provide an inclusive outlet for veterans, ranging from music therapy programs to this summer’s national veterans’ 9/11-themed art competition.
“The winner will have their art reproduced on postcards sent to 50,000 first responders, veterans and active-duty service members,” Blaney said. “Winners will also have their work displayed at the National Veterans Art Museum in Chicago.”
And if that’s not enough, Challenge America is also sponsoring four severely injured veterans to take part in its Mount Elbert Challenge on Sept. 15. Three valley locals and a veteran from Wisconsin have been training to tackle the Fourteener; an online Strava Club has been set up with a goal of having supporters climb 4,500 flights of stairs by the event date.