Low Key Watersports and Love City Businesses Treat Veterans Group to Healing Retreat

Low Key Watersports and Love City Businesses Treat Veterans Group to Healing Retreat

Good Morning, Good Morning!  How is everyone doing out there in the world?  As the slowest time of the year comes to a blissful close, things are starting to pick up, slowly but surely, here in Love City.  And next week many local businesses and community members will take advantage of this dwindling slow time to welcome a group of wounded veterans to St. John for a week of healing, exploration, adventure and relaxation.

The thing to remember about this time of year is that, as mentioned, it is slow.  It is not the busiest time of year when doors have been open for months and money has been rolling in.  Some of the restaurants are just re-opening.  Accommodations have been, well, less than fully booked.  Boats are just returning back to their slips and moorings after hurricane season.  But, according to Ann Marie Estes, Founder of Low Key Watersports and organizer of the upcoming trip for Service Members Undertaking Disabled Sports (SUDS), not a single business said no when she was looking for sponsors to host, feed and entertain the group of four veterans who will join us on St. John from October 28-November 4.

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SUDS Veterans enjoy the underwater world with Dive Low Key during the 2022 retreat

“It really tugs at the heart strings,” she told me over the phone earlier this week.  “The team of the island makes this successful.  We are living in troubled times and there are so many anguishing situations happening around the world.  To reach out to these community members and business owners without hesitation.  To see it all come together.  It’s a really beautiful thing.”

While visiting St. John, the veterans, hailing from Texas, Arizona and Florida, will enjoy a seven-night luxurious stay at Isla Vista villa, graciously donated by owners of Low Key Watersports, Kathee and Edward Kramm.  Here, the veterans and their two assistants will enjoy ocean views, breezes, overly comfortable accommodations and a beautiful pool to relax in at the end, or the beginning, of the day.  Two rental Jeeps from St. John Car Rental and $500 in groceries from Starfish Market for their stay will add to the comfort and convenience of the SUDS retreat.  Even an air mattress was provided by Christy’s of St. John to ensure extra sleeping space if needed.

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The veterans will enjoy accommodations at Isla Vista next week.

Throughout their stay, the SUDS team will enjoy a vast array of island dining provided by High Tide Seafood Bar & Grill, The Beach Bar, Lovango Rum Bar, 18.64 the Restaurant, The Tap Room, Morgan’s Mango, Sam & Jack’s and Cruz Bay Landing.

However, the real reason these wounded in combat heroes are making the journey all the way to St. John is the diving.  And Low Key Watersports will provide the team with four days on, and under, the water on a healing under-the sea exploration of the Virgin Islands waters and marine life.  The team will end their week with a full day of leisure with Ocean Runner and a stop at Lime Out for lunch.

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Last year’s crew prior to a day of fun in the sun with Ocean Runner!

Founder and Executive Director of SUDS, John Thompson is also a veteran who worked for Low Key in the late 1990’s as a dive instructor.  His inspiration for founding SUDS began when he visited his wife for lunch while she was doing her medical residency at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC).  Thompson explained to me that his seven years of service in the 1980’s had been during peacetime.  But during his wife’s employment at WRAMC (2005-2008), combat injured soldiers were flooding the hospital.  And after witnessing their challenges firsthand Thompson knew he had to get involved but wasn’t sure what he had to offer.

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A veteran on the dock at Low Key Watersports – 2022 SUDS trip

But combined experience as a veteran, a PADI dive instructor and a background in working with the Colorado Outward Bound program gave Thompson much more than he knew he could offer.  He started volunteering with the American Red Cross and then began giving dive lessons to veterans in the pool at WRAMC once the Physical Therapist gave the green light for the program.  He took a small group to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for the first SUDS trip in early 2008 and has since made a difference in the lives of hundreds of veterans with these one-of-a-kind excursions.

Since that casual lunch date, SUDS has taken small groups of four-five veterans who are, one way or another, struggling with physical or emotional battle wounds on dozens of life changing journeys.  They explore the outdoor world as a means of therapy via sport.  Whether it be diving, whitewater rafting, kayaking, rock climbing, skiing, hiking or even simple things such as escaping to Maine to see the beautiful fall foliage, these trips provide a space of encouragement and support for the veterans.  They have ventured to locations in the Caribbean, Kona (Hawaii), Colorado, Texas, Utah, Puerto Rico, Arizona and, of course, St. John, according to SUDS’ President of the Board, Carla Chatterton.

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SUDS coordinates outdoor exploration trips of all kinds for wounded veterans.

“These trips are so meaningful for the veterans, ” said Chatterton.  “They are rewarded by the work that they are partaking in but also the comradery they build with other service members.”

The community built around these trips is as important as the trips themselves for the emotional well-being of these wounded in combat veterans.  According to Chatterton, lifelong friendships and, more importantly, support systems are sometimes born from these excursions that turn strangers into one another’s’ strongest supporters.

“On these trips, (the veterans are) building a support system that can help in a multitude of ways.  They can talk about their shared experiences.  Strangers made into lifelong friends.  It’s not about who it is or where it is, it’s about what it does.”

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Two servicemembers help each other into the water at Trunk Bay – 2022

Chatterton also told me the impact of these trips exceeds the connections made.  She sees a “transformation, both mentally and physically from the vets participating in these trips.”  In short, one week can make a lifetime of difference.

Estes’ gratitude extends (and overflows) to the service members as they struggle with physical or emotional wounds from their time in combat and enjoy their time spent here on St. John.

“When you see people who have been wounded in action and they have lost a limb or are suffering emotional trauma.  Well, we didn’t pull that card,” she said.  “They stepped up on OUR behalf.  There’s an overwhelming amount of gratitude (and thankfulness!) when we work with them.”

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Last year’s incredible group of individuals posed in front of each participating business for a photo op to later send as a thank you card.

However, Love City comes together in incredible ways for groups such as this!  Whether it be Team River Runner, SUDS, Tiny Pink Houses of Hope or any one of our local non-profits…Well, we all know how giving this community can be!  Chatterton and Thompson wanted to both express their heartfelt gratitude to the businesses and supporters here on St. John on behalf of the veterans and the SUDS organization.

And not every destination ensures that all expenses are taken care of on the ground for the SUDS trips.  Chatterton told me that the organization has only one employee and, on average, 90% of what they raise goes directly back into helping to pay for these trips for the veterans.  The biggest expenses obviously being airfare or lodging.

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If you would like to support these incredible endeavors, there are a few ways to do just that!  First, you can simply go to SUDS website and donate online.  Second, if you are on island, you can drop a cash or check donation off at Low Key Watersports.  Third, if you are a business or villa owner on St. John and you would like to donate a stay or a meal or a rental car for next years’ SUDS trip, please contact Ann Marie Estes via email to get involved!

I want to extend, on behalf of the Love City community, a heartfelt WELCOME to these amazing individuals who made immense sacrifices for our freedoms and will be arriving on island this weekend.  We hope that your time spent here fills your spirits with healing hope and that you will remember it fondly in the years to come.

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