By Caitlin Switzer
MONTROSE—(September 3, 2013) When it was Tim Kenney’s turn to introduce himself, a simple, lunchtime introduction became a heartfelt expression of gratitude.
“This organization saved my life,” said Kenney, a wounded veteran who remains on active duty with the Colorado National Guard as he heals. And Kenney, a tough-as-nails river guide in civilian life, stopped to brush away a tear.
Attendees of the lunch at the Montrose Warrior Resource Center on Aug. 22 included a number of veterans, many from the Vietnam era, so Kenney’s brief but powerful comments and emotions were well understood.
The luncheon itself was a precursor to a larger celebration of Montrose’s recent—and long sought—designation as a 2013 All America City. The community celebration planned for that evening included local government officials and business owners, as well as free T-shirts, special banners, and a very public display of pride. Colorado’s Undersecretary of Veterans’ Memorials, Steven Muro, was an honored guest and speaker.
The Warrior Center luncheon was held at earlier that day, organized by Kline and Montrose Mayor Judy Ann Files, so that Muro could meet some of those involved on a more intimate basis. After all, the non-profit that encompasses the Warrior Center, Welcome Home Montrose, was one of the reasons that Montrose finally achieved the coveted designation—the 2013 All America City honors were intended for communities that have a taken a leading role in honoring, serving, and supporting U.S. veterans.
Founded by business woman and silversmith Melanie Kline, Welcome Home Montrose is a non-profit initiative that seeks to make Montrose, Colorado the most “veteran friendly” community in America. Though less than two years old, Welcome Home Montrose has become a major force in the community, marshaling local and outside resources in an effort to bring veterans to the area and help them to build new lives for themselves and their loved ones. At Kline’s side each day is Emily Smith, a young military wife and mother whose sense of duty and honor drives her to volunteer each day as the organization’s executive director, where her smile and calm presence preside.
Smith and her husband Sheldon, a veteran himself as well as the local veterans’ service officer, have donated countless hours to the project for a simple reason—it is the right thing to do.
“I am proud to be a military wife,” Emily told luncheon attendees, her head held high.
Pride was a feeling that many of the older veterans in the room shared, despite recollections of mistreatment at the hands of the public during the controversial Vietnam years.
Montrose business owner and solar energy pioneer Douglas Kiesewetter, who serves on the board of Welcome Home Montrose, told his own story of coming home after service in Vietnam.
“I have a deep respect for the military,” Kiesewetter said. “When I came home I was spat upon, and berated regularly for walking on campus in a military uniform. I believe there has been a debt of gratitude that has not been paid, and which needs to be made right.”
Welcome Home Montrose was founded in November of 2011, after Kline watched a television program about the challenges facing the nation’s returning vets. She quickly turned to friends old and new for support, obtaining a donated space at 11 South Park Avenue from local rancher and business owner Ralph Walchle, and working closely with the City of Montrose.
Writer Lisa DelPiccolo discussed the city’s role in the project in an article for the Colorado Municipalities October issue.
“The City of Montrose was an eager and immediate partner,” DelPiccolo noted. “The Montrose City Council swiftly passed a resolution of support, vowing to work toward the creation of a no-barriers environment for residents and visitors of all ages and abilities.
“With a push from City Manager Bill Bell, the City pledged that all future infrastructure projects would strive to surpass Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance to incorporate a higher level of functionality. Realizing that not all combat wounds are physical, the City also committed to providing a pleasing and open environment that would remove the stress of trying to fit into a new community.
“Other core community organizations, including Montrose County, Montrose Economic Development Corporation, the Downtown Development Authority, the Montrose Chamber of Commerce, and Montrose Recreation District responded in a similar manner and quickly adopted resolutions of support for a no-barriers community,” DelPiccolo wrote.
Montrose Mayor Judy Ann Files, a former school teacher who has worked with special needs students, said that she did not know much about Welcome Home Montrose before attending the All America City competition in Denver this summer.
“That was the first time I sat down with Melanie, and I realized that this is something I can really embrace,” Files said. “While we were in Denver I personally got so many questions and comments about Welcome Home Montrose—people were wowed.
“Perhaps because of my own background, I can see that this program has a tremendous impact on our entire community,” Files said. “Not just veterans—this benefits us all. For a child with special needs, or someone who is handicapped, to come to a “no barriers” community is a win-win situation.”
Kline herself, though she at times feels overwhelmed, continues to express enthusiasm and excitement over the many accomplishments that Welcome Home Montrose has achieved in such a short span of time. From the first annual “Mission: No Barriers” week held this June, which brought 20 wounded warriors to town to participate in a myriad of recreational and healing activities, to the well-attended Veterans coffee sessions and military spouse lunches, to the countless volunteers and community members who have donated time, money, in-kind supplies and love, the non-profit has become the heart of the community itself.
“I have tried to find other, similar organizations that can serve as blueprints for us,” Kline told those at the Muro luncheon. “However, there don’t seem to be any; we are breaking new ground.”
Typical of the those who have become involved with the Welcome Home Montrose initiative is veteran Gary Gratton, who told the group, “I was always going to be a Marine…I wore my dad’s uniform until it fell apart… I am a flag waver, and Commander of the Disabled American Veterans.
“This has opened my eyes.”
Today Gratton helps veterans with forms, and drives a van to Grand Junction to the VA on a regular basis. He also carves eagle head canes to be used in ceremonies at the Warrior Resource Center.
“This is a great organization,” he said.
Susan Zanol , an Air Force veteran, told the group that her own sister had once called her a baby killer.
“I had things thrown at me,” Zanol said. “Some of my male colleagues would put on wigs, because at the time they were the only young men around with short hair. After the military, I went into teaching, and my principal asked me how it felt to finally have a real job.”
Zanol said that she then “shut down,” and never spoke of her years in the service, until learning of Melanie Kline’s efforts to establish Welcome Home Montrose.
“I was skeptical,” Zanol said. “I googled them—and I learned that (fellow veteran) Lee Burkins was in Montrose, and was teaching Tai Chi at the Warrior Center. I started going to the classes, and talking to Melanie.
“It is a wonderful thing to have our talents and abilities utilized,” she said. “It is a privilege and an honor to live in a town that thanks you for your service.
“I once again feel proud to have served.”
This simple paragraph, attached to the weekly news briefs that Welcome Home Montrose sends to media through Western Colorado, sums up the mission of this non-profit and the people that it was created to serve: “With the suicide, divorce and unemployment rates so high in our military population, Montrose means to set the standard for other cities to follow in how to serve those who stepped up to serve all of us. By strengthening our services, identifying and filling our gaps, creating programs and removing the barriers in our infrastructure, we are preparing a place for our wounded warriors to visit and hopefully, to stay.”
Welcome Home Montrose was also instrumental in the successful application to have the 2014 Colorado VFW convention held in Montrose. Luncheon guest and speaker Muro, who was invited to town after meeting Mayor Files at the All America City competition earlier this year, was obviously deeply impressed.
“Thank you for what you do for our veterans,” said Muro to the group on Aug. 22. “As a veteran myself, I am proud to be invited to help celebrate Montrose’s designation as an All America City.”