Steamboat Springs Some of the best moments, Fred Solheim said, come when he’s woken up in the middle of the night, the sounds of laughter and stories drifting into his tent from a group gathered around a still-smoldering campfire long after he assumed most people went to sleep.
Solheim, a Boulder philanthropist, has spent much of his last five years helping American military veterans who are dealing with disabilities.
He does it with a variety of activities and camps, but it started with a series of raft trips down the Colorado River in Utah.
That’s where he learned the power of the campfire.
“They can talk and bond,” he said. “They were comfortable in a combat unit where everyone had been through the same experiences, but now, they’re out in the world by themselves with all of their issues, trying to reintegrate.
“When I started, I realized they’re their own best healers,” he said. “Talking around the campfire, that’s very therapeutic for them.”
Solheim’s organization, Warriors on Cataract, has grown over the years, and after he looked up an old friend, Steamboat Springs’ Billy Kidd, he began to form a relationship with Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports, STARS.
Now, he’s folded parts of his operation into STARS, and the Steamboat organization helped run his raft trips for the first time this spring.
“It was absolutely amazing,” said Craig Kennedy, client services & outreach director for STARS, who took part in his first raft trip with the group in late May.
“We talked to Fred and said, ‘Why don’t you let STARS take over, and we can provide the funding and organizational stuff,’” Kennedy said. “We signed a contract to see how it goes, and we helped them run their trips this year.”
So far, so good.
This year’s stint on the river consisted of four raft trips. One was for special operations soldiers, one an all-womens trip and two for other veterans. In all, about 80 veterans made the roughly 100-mile ride down the river.
They go through rapids, camp every night, and are helped by experienced guides and local Moab outfitters like Tag-A-Long Expeditions, which offers its services at a greatly reduced rate.
“It’s amazing to watch the process,” Kennedy said of working with the veterans, who are often suffering from ailments such as post traumatic stress syndrome. “These guys get healing time out there, and they aren’t thinking about all of the other stuff they usually have to worry about.”
Seeing that process is what’s driven Solheim, and it’s helped drive STARS, as well.
Kennedy joined STARS five years ago soon after Director Julie Taulman took over the organization. In that time, the organization has ballooned, growing far bigger than it was initially, working in the winter with skiers and snowboarders with disabilities.
Its winter programing has grown, and now, it has summer programs, which Kennedy said may soon rival or surpass its winter offerings.
STARS' work with the veteran community has grown exponentially, as well. Five years ago, there was one event — a winter ski camp. This year, there will be 12 camps catering to veterans, and the organization has begun to expand beyond Steamboat Springs.
The next event locally for veterans is a STARS and Stripes Families veterans camp starting late this month in Steamboat. More await, including a pair of veterans houseboat trips to Lake Powell in Utah and Arizona, partially arranged by Solheim.
The focus is still Steamboat, Kennedy said, but things such as the raft trips and the houseboat trips showed up as ready-made opportunities too good to pass up.
“The raft trip program was already established. It just needed some funding and organization. It was a perfect fit for us,” he said. “We’re still focused on Steamboat, the Yampa Valley. This is our home.”
The arrangement has been good for Solheim, too.
It’s allowed him to focus on the aspects of the trips that he loves the most — finding soldiers who need to get away from the world for a few days, who need to unplug from the city and unload their thoughts on the only people who can really understand, fellow soldiers.
It’s allowed him to focus on getting people sitting around that late-night campfire, laughing long into the night, occasionally waking up someone sleeping in a tent nearby.
“This relationship (with STARS) has been a win-win,” he said.
To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253, email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @JReich9