Bairds chosen as Citizens of the Year
Published: Tuesday, December 31st, 2013
It takes a lot of people to keep Operation Black Hills Cabin going. Pat and Jeff Baird don’t take sole credit for the project, which provides a week at the cabin for combat-injured veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation New Dawn (OND), with virtually all expenses paid.
They give credit to all the people who have helped along the way: the board, the many volunteers, the businesses that donate food or admission to their attractions, the businesses that provided work at the cabin site, the city that leased the land to Operation Black Hills Cabin, the state that provided the cabin itself... and the Unseen Hand that has guided this project from behind the scenes from the very first day that Pat first came up with the idea.
In the winter of 2011, Pat and Jeff had company. As Pat was sick with the flu, Jeff took their company to the Black Hills Stock Show and Rodeo in Rapid City, leaving Pat at home to rest.
“Mid-afternoon, I stumbled downstairs in my nightgown to check my emails,” she remembers. “One email said I should watch Oprah that day, as the show was featuring a young South Dakota couple whose husband had been injured in the war.”
Pat checked the clock. It was 2:59 p.m. Oprah came on TV at 3 p.m., so Pat pushed “record” on her TV and went back to bed. A couple of days later, Pat and Jeff sat down to watch the recorded show with their company.
When Pat saw it, she said, “We live in ‘paradise.’ We should have a cabin for people like that to stay in at no charge because this is a vacation destination.”
Pat and Jeff are both retired military, having each served in the U.S. Air Force four years and another 16 years in the North Dakota Air National Guard. They had been coming out to the Black Hills from their home in Minnesota for several years during the Sturgis Bike Rally and fell in love with the area. They moved to “paradise” in 2004.
Pat later wondered who had sent her that email and went back to check her computer, but couldn’t find it again. She put search words in, but still couldn’t find it. She also checked her email trash just in case she had trashed the message, but she never found it. She knew she hadn’t emptied her trash.
“There was no email,” she says. “The whole project has been like that. There were so many things like that.”
And so Pat and Jeff started seriously talking about the project “under the radar.”
When someone told them they would have to set up a 501(c)3, a non-profit, they mulled that over.
“So I’m in the grocery store,” Pat remembers, “and I run into an accountant we went to church with who said he’d never done one of those, but that he was willing to try. That was pretty amazing.”
After three months of filling out paperwork, Operation Black Hills Cabin officially became a non-profit entity. The next item on the list was to put together a board of directors which would ideally include influential people in the community, so a board of five members was created. When one of those members decided to bow out, another of the board members, Ione Fejfar, happened to be talking to Carol Johnson, who had been employed by AAA for 28 years.
“Carol is a very high energy person,”âï¿½ï¿½Ione says. “I asked her what she wanted to do and she said she wanted to get involved with fundraising for a non-profit. And I said, ‘Have I got the job for you!’ She’s been a very big asset in both fundraising and in marketing from her home in Watertown.” The fifth member of the board is retired Air Force colonel Marty Mahrt of Custer.
In June 2011, everything was in place to host a wounded veteran and their family — except for a place for them to stay. That’s when Custer residents offered their vacation cabin for the cause. Three veterans were hosted that summer, but the board soon realized that a vacation rental cabin was not the ideal solution because the time the cabin was available had to be coordinated with the time the veteran’s family was able to come to the Black Hills, and they didn’t always match.
“After that first summer, we realized it wasn’t going to work, so we looked at various options,” Pat says. “The problem with providing an existing building set aside for that purpose was that we’d have to pay for it. And we had no money.”
When Ione suggested that the board look at getting a Governor’s House, they decided to look into that option, but they also knew they had to have a place to put the house, so they approached the city. Operation Black Hills Cabin received a 30-year lease from the city for which it pays $1 per year. “We paid it in full already,”âï¿½ï¿½Pat says. “We splurged.” There is room on the acreage for an additional two cabins, should they need them in the future.
Next the question of acquiring a cabin to sit on the property was discussed by the board. Someone brought up the possibility of buying a Governor’s Home, but the recipient of those homes has to be low income, it was pointed out. The board then went to Pierre, where they met with nine people, including Mark Lauseng, executive director of the South Dakota Housing Authority.
“Everyone kept asking us questions,”âï¿½ï¿½Pat recalls. “They asked us why we needed a cabin. I had bought home decor, such as a sign that says, ‘Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning to dance in the rain,’ that we wanted to put up in the cabin.’ All this time, Mark didn’t say much.”
When asked about the number of children that would be staying in the cabin, the board said they had to turn away a family with six children because there just wasn’t room in the vacation rental they had been using.
“Mark said, ‘It sounds like you need a three-bedroom, two-bath,’ but noted that the state doesn’t make those any more,” Pat says. “But they still had the plans for them. And then Mark said, ‘We’ll fully grant you a three-bedroom, two-bath home.’ I figured it would take a ream of paperwork to accomplish this, so when I asked about that, Mark turned over a blank sheet of paper, shoved it toward me and said, ‘Just put your X there.’”
Pat was wondering how the board could come up with the money to pay for the home, understanding that a two-bedroom Governor’s Home cost $32,000 and assuming that a thee-bedroom home would cost $42,000. At that time, she thought “fully granting the board a three-bedroom, two-bath home” meant that the state was granting the board the opportunity to buy a three-bedroom, two-bath home.
It took the board six months to discuss it.
The board held fundraisers and eventually raised $10,000 to put toward the Governor’s House. “We figured we’d each have to raise $10,000 to put into it, but we were all committed,”âï¿½ï¿½Pat says.
The house was ordered September 2012.
There was a lot of work to be done to get the land ready for the cabin. Trees had to be removed, dirt work had to be done and a foundation had to be laid. Much of that work was donated, both by the state and individual businesses, along with volunteers. Even insulation for the basement was donated, along with some of the plumbing.
When the cabin was delivered in March 2013, all the board members were expecting to write a check to cover the rest of the cost. But they were handed a piece of paper that indicated the amount due was a “big goose egg with a line through it,” Pat says.
The 1,200-square-foot home was built in Springfield by Mike Durfee State Prison inmates, who build all the Governor’s Homes, and escorted 375 miles to its new home in Custer by the Patriot Guard Riders.
“When we ordered the cabin, we asked for two things,”âï¿½ï¿½Pat says. “It needed to be handicapped accessible and we wanted it to feel like a cabin.âï¿½ï¿½The state took it and ran with it.”
The South Dakota Housing Authority approached its regular suppliers, explained the situation to them and asked if they would be willing to donate various items for the cabin’s construction, which allowed for many upgrades.
The result is a real cabin in “paradise” that sleeps eight, sided with cedar and furnished in warm orange colors in the living room and kitchen areas, vaulted ceilings, central air and a sprinkler system. It also contains oak cabinets made by the prisoners, a stone fireplace, overstuffed leather furniture, a fully stocked kitchen and laundry. The master bathroom has a roll-in shower and the rest of the cabin has wide doorways so a wheelchair can move freely.
“So it ended up as a real state project,” Pat reflects.
But it was also taken on as a project locally. Another one of those serendipity moments happened after the three-bedroom cabin was donated by the state. Even though the board had all the beds for the cabin, once the cabin arrived, the third bedroom was too small for a large bed and they realized what they really needed was bunk beds. “A couple days later, a woman called to say she had a set of bunk beds,”âï¿½ï¿½Pat says. They fit perfectly.
A “healing hike” was constructed on the property, with benches scattered along the pathway that wends its way through the hills and trees on the property. The board has plans to have inspirational sayings sandblasted into rocks at various places along the route.
Many area attractions, including Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial and Custer State Park, have donated passes to the families. Local restaurants have donated meals and many local businesses have also donated items for the cabin. Custer Quilt Guild came to the board and offered to give the cabin a shower of toys, games, puzzles and books.
“Black Hills businesses have been very generous with free admissions and meals and they reach out to the veterans and personally thank them for their service,” Pat says. “We have a pamphlet that has over 214 names of businesses and people who have been involved in some way, shape or form. Without the group effort, it would have never gotten off the ground.”
One of the most touching donations came from one of the prison inmates who had worked on the cabin. He sent $10, which represented a 40-hour work week for him. Another donation was from a Custer High School senior who, as a senior project, took in used prom dresses and resold them for $5 each. She gave the board a check for $155, which was used to purchase a microwave for the cabin. And last summer, the board received a call from a bike wash in Sturgis that decided to donate all of its profits to Operation Black Hills Cabin.
“We have received lots of heartwarming donations,”âï¿½ï¿½Pat says, too many to list. Some people have made the determination to donate a certain amount to the cabin every month. “We don’t turn down anything,” she adds. “Anyone who wants to help, we welcome that.”
The cabin operates April through October and veterans are encouraged to go to the website operationblackhillscabin.org to download an application for consideration. To qualify, a veteran must be at least 30 percent combat injured in OEF, OIF or OND. The cabin is open to any veteran, not just those from South Dakota, Pat emphasizes. Once accepted, the applicant will receive a letter from the board and will be kept in communication until their arrival.
When the family arrives, they are met by a welcoming committee bestowing upon them a welcome basket, coupons, a gift bag, information about the area and a tour of the cabin. They are told that the hospital is only half a block away, should they need to go there for any reason. Each veteran is presented with a Quilt of Valor and local author J.E. “Scotty” Terrell donated a copy of each of his books for the cabin.
“We operate on a wing and a prayer,”âï¿½ï¿½Pat says. “We are 100 percent volunteer. What amazes me is what can happen when so many people give a little bit of their time.”
Volunteers clean the cabin thoroughly after each departure (which takes about four hours), they mow the lawn, water the lawn, do the laundry, make beds and shop for groceries to keep the kitchen stocked with snacks and food items that are personally picked for each family according to a questionnaire sent to the family before they arrive. “We have a very committed board,” Pat notes.
The biggest hurdles that remain are getting the word out to qualifying veterans and fundraising to keep it going.
For Pat and Jeff and the rest of the board, the rewards are many. “The biggest joys in life are the things you don’t do for a paycheck,” Pat says. “These people are willing to give their lives for our freedoms.”
The response from the veterans and their families has been heartwarming. Many of their comments may be found at Operation Black Hills Cabin’s website.
Besides spearheading Operation Black Hills Cabins, Pat and Jeff have been active members of Custer County Search and Rescue, which requires them to be on call 24/7. They are among an elite group who are qualified “Wilderness First Responders.”
Having been involved with horses most of her life, Pat judges at the National Horse Knowledge Bowl competition at the Denver Western National Stock Show. She also made all five of the patriotic quilts for Operation Black Hills Cabin.
Pat and Jeff are avid square dancers and love to ride motorcycles and horses in their spare time.
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