Montrose would be an ideal place for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan to lay down new roots.
That’s the simple idea that popped into Melanie Kline’s head last year as she sat watching CBS’ “Sunday Morning.”
The news magazine focuses on national interviews, commentary and profiles. That morning, the broadcast featured a man named Jared Bolhuis, a wounded veteran who was helping other wounded veterans learn to kayak on the Potomac River just outside of Washington, D.C.
When the segment ended, “I just sat there kind of stunned, and I realized that this was a nasty war,” Kline recalled, “Then I just had the biggest idea I’ve ever had in my life.”
It was one that eventually would change many lives, including Bolhuis’, who at that time had never heard of Montrose.
Kline’s idea was to gather the entire community of Montrose to welcome wounded veterans to a new hometown where they would find all of their needs met.
But the idea wasn’t that simple. What would have to happen? Who would have to be involved? What about medical care? Employment? Housing? Emotional support? Recreation? The wheels in her head wouldn’t stop turning.
“From that next day to today, I’ve been knocking on doors and trying to gather the whole community for support,” Kline, the founder of Welcome Home Montrose, said from inside the new offices of the group’s Warrior Resource Center at 11 S. Park, Suite A.
The organization is now in the final stages of becoming an official nonprofit whose mission is to make Montrose the most veteran-friendly community in the nation.
Once the process is complete, Welcome Home Montrose can begin applying for much-need grants to sustain its budding programs. The group currently has no funding.
Three people have joined the volunteer staff, including Bolhuis, the wounded veteran featured on “Sunday Morning” who served in Afghanistan in 2009. He has post-traumatic stress disorder and a brain injury which he received after a bomb detonated near his armored vehicle.
“It was hard at first to understand her (Kline’s) full concept and the overall vision,” said Bolhuis, who now serves as the organization’s co-executive director.
The idea was intriguing enough that Bolhuis visited Montrose last spring.
“I got here and I realized that this was a truly unique place, and an idea like this wouldn’t be possible without this type of community,” he said.
He moved to Montrose and established the organization’s Dream Job Program. Bolhuis invited three wounded service members to live and work their “dream jobs” with personal mentors in Montrose.
“At first I just laughed at him,” said Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua Heck from Pennsylvania, who is interested in plants. The idea of moving his wife to a small town in Colorado to study horticulture was ridiculous.
But a month later, Bolhuis offered him an opportunity to be mentored by Buckhorn Gardens, a small vegetable and herb farm just outside the city. Heck took a leap of faith and gave Montrose a try.
“At first it was a huge culture shock, but it’s not too, too small and we fell in love with it almost immediately,” Heck said.
Bulhuis also found jobs for Navy Culinary Specialist Judi Boyce and Marine Lance Cpl. Edward J. Lyons III. Boyce dreams of being an event planner and is working for the city of Montrose. Lyons wants to be a high school teacher and is currently working for the Montrose County School District.
Bolhuis is using this initial group of veterans as “guinea pigs” to gauge what types of services or opportunities they may need in order to make Montrose more veteran-friendly.
Emily Smith, co-executive director, describes Welcome Home Montrose as a “concierge service” for veterans.
The group is connecting veterans of all ages with medical care, jobs and housing. The Warrior Resource Center, which celebrated its grand opening on Sept. 11, hosts a weekly coffee and provides space for special events.
“We just want to have a facility where you can walk in the door and find anything that you need,” she said.
In exchange, Montrose would gain active residents who would support the local economy and bring a true sense of community to the city.
“We want all of them, but even if just one percent came — that’s hundreds that we could improve their living situations and give them an opportunity to start a new life,” Smith said.
Welcome Home Montrose has gained the support of a host of local government officials and organizations, including the Montrose County Commission, the city of Montrose, Montrose Commerce and Tourism, the Montrose Economic Development Corporation and the Montrose Downtown Development Association.
Other local businesses, from salons to grocery stores, have become committed to helping the organization in any way necessary.
“Our five-year goal,” said Kline, “is that we serve as an example to other communities that could be doing this. We need to make sure that this generation gets what they need.”