The pandemic has made a hard time even harder for San Diego County military veterans who are battling mental illness and issues related to unemployment, addiction and homelessness.
So when the leaders of Veterans Village of San Diego decided this fall to host a fundraiser to serve the growing needs of this vulnerable population, they gave themselves an equally hard task.
Instead of hosting a charity gala — something they haven’t done in more than 15 years and difficult to pull off for the first time during a pandemic — they organized a three-day sea kayaking marathon that has raised nearly $70,000.
Most of that money was raised by kayaker Alyce Fernebok, a Marine Corps veteran who chairs the board of directors for VVSD. She said the 54-mile kayaking and camping event from Oct. 21-23 was grueling, but it was nothing like the struggles endured by the roughly 3,000 veterans VVSD serves each year.
“For me, it’s one thing to write words of encouragement to our veterans, but how do you show solidarity? We wanted to do something really special that honored the struggle that we know our veterans go through,” Fernebok said.
Founded in 1981, the VVSD campus in the Midway district of San Diego offers a 224-bed drug and alcohol rehab center, a mental health care family clinic, job training and legal services and both bridge and transitional housing.
Akilah Templeton, president and CEO of VVSD, said it has been difficult this year to meet the demand for services in an environment where face-to-face contact and group meetings are discouraged.
“Telehealth requires equipment, more space, additional staffing, new systems and coordination,” she said. “We are doing what we can to make the adjustments so that needs don’t go unmet.”
To meet the rising need, the VVSD Catalina 50-Mile Kayak event was planned with a fundraising goal of $100,000. Seven experienced kayakers took part in the event, including a veteran, an active-duty serviceman, a guide and four Veterans Village supporters. They chose Catalina as their destination because the island has a rich military history, having served as a barracks and training ground for soldiers during the Civil War and for the Coast Guard during World War II, Fernebok said.
Fernebok — who served as a helicopter pilot in the Marine Corps from 1996 to 2005 — led the team with guide Duncan Smith. Also participating were Rob Munroe, Brittany Holley, Emily Katz, Kevin Sollenberger and an active-duty serviceman who declined to be named. The group are already planning another kayaking fundraiser to Catalina in 2021.
Using one solo and three tandem sea kayaks, the group set off on the morning of Oct. 21 from San Pedro and paddled more than 23 miles to Two Harbors on Catalina.
Fernebok said the nearly eight-hour paddle started off with smooth water and good weather but it got tougher as they neared the island. After camping on the shore overnight, they paddled another 12 miles to the island’s northwest point and then back to a campsite at Parson’s Landing. On day three, they paddled more than 18 miles, stopping first at Toyon Bay and then finishing their journey at Avalon.
The final paddle-in was in rough seas and winds that nearly capsized one of the kayaks. But Fernebok said a man who served as an inspiration for the voyage — a Marine veteran named Manny who turned his life around this year at Veterans Village — ran into the surf and pulled the kayak to shore. They kayakers honored Manny by giving him one of their paddles, signed with messages of support.
In a video promoting the fundraiser, Manny — whose last name was withheld — said he spent eight years in the Marine Corps, including a deployment to Iraq, before retiring in 2007. Dealing with combat-related post-traumatic stress, he got involved with drugs and began a long cycle of relapses, job losses and homelessness in several U.S. states. On April 28, he was wandering the streets near the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego when he saw two men jog by wearing T-shirts from VVSD’s nearby rehab center and he decided to seek help.
After a 10-day stay in the emergency shelter at the San Diego Convention Center, Manny moved into Veterans Village where he joined a therapy group for combat veterans, got sober, gained 25 pounds of muscle and got help finding a new job.
“Without VVSD I’d probably be dead right now. It’s a blessing,” Manny said. “Being homeless you don’t feel like you have any value. You forget who you are and who you were. The thing about this place, it helped me get it all back. Even though I made bad choices, I still have value. The people here have value. For a lot of us here, this was it. It could’ve been the end. This is a second chance.”
To donate to VVSD kayak event, visit vvsd.net/vvsd-50-mile-kayak.
Source: The San Diego Union Tribune