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IRON RANGE — Like all of United Way of Northeastern Minnesota (UWNEMN)’s direct service programs, its United for Veterans (UFV) program was started because community members approached UWNEMN staff to discuss a need in the community.
“After a campaign meeting at one of the mines, a group of miners pulled us aside to say, ‘There are a lot of gaps in services for veterans up here,’” said UWNEMN Executive Director Erin Shay. “They asked us how we could help, and we’ve been working together to help ever since.”
Their newest effort to help? A Veterans Wellness Passport program to bring free monthly wellness activities to veterans across the region.
Through the program, UWNEMN and UFV will partner with local volunteers and venues across the region to host a different wellness activity each month. Activities will be announced quarterly, and veterans living or working in UWNEMN’s service territory can sign up for one, a few, or all of them, at no cost to them.
Veterans who sign up to receive a Veterans Wellness Passport ID will receive quarterly updates on upcoming activities before they’re released to the public as well as other local veterans’ services. They can also use their Passport ID Number to simplify their sign-up for future Veterans Wellness Passport Activities.
“We want to make this easy and fun,” said UWNEMN Community Impact Coordinator Michelle Lampton. “We want the program to be welcoming – whether you’re new to the area or new to a particular activity, or if you’ve lived here you whole life and are an expert at the month’s activity, there’s a place for you here!”
According to the Mayo Clinic, regular exercise builds confidence, increases social interaction, and helps people cope in a healthy way—and it doesn’t take a strenuous workout routine, either.
“Any physical activity that gets you off the couch and moving can help improve your mood,” the clinic’s website reads.
Veterans Wellness Passport activities will range from traditional exercise to physical activity unique to our region. The first three activities of the year are: a six-week yoga course (in-person for a limited number or via Zoom) from April to May, a May bike ride on the Mesabi Trail, and a June fishing day trip and fish fry. Equipment will be provided for activities if needed.
“This is all about removing barriers for local veterans to get together and explore wellness activities across our region,” Shay said. “That means making sure all the activities are accessible to veterans of any age, background, and experience level—and providing the necessary equipment.”
Local volunteers lead the way
All Veterans Wellness Passport activities will be led by local volunteers.
30West Fitness and Recreation in Chisholm will be leading the May bike ride on the Mesabi Trail. Co-owner and doctor of Physical Therapy with Big Stone Therapies, Nick Gigliotti, said the local fitness center signed on to lead a bike ride in hopes that the ride would be accessible for almost anybody.
“And we have a great deal of gratitude for the freedom that our servicemen and women have allowed us to have,” he added.
The May 11 bike ride is estimated to take an hour to an hour-and-a-half, and road bikes for the trail can be made available to those who sign up and request a bike by May through a partnership with Bikes on Howard. Future rides through the Veterans Wellness Passport program may also include mountain biking on a local trail.
“Our region’s bike trails give Iron Rangers outdoor opportunities and landscapes to enjoy that many other areas don’t possess,” Gigliotti said.
“True gems right in our back yard,” he exclaimed. “Enjoying them on a bike allows you to soak in this beautiful nature while getting all the great physical and mental benefits that come with biking.”
The UFV committee is grateful for the early local support of the Veterans Wellness Passport program from businesses like 30West, Bikes on Howard, Rooted Circles yoga studio in Hibbing, and Veterans on the Lake Resort in Ely. They hope that, as time goes on, the program grows and that veterans will provide input on what kind of activities they’d like to see, perhaps even leading some of their own.
“We want this to be something that resonates,” Lampton said.
UWNEMN Board Member, UFV Committee Member, and local veteran Chad Buus said he’s excited to see a program like this start on the Iron Range.
“I’m hopeful this organization can rekindle some of the camaraderie that our service members may be missing since leaving active duty,” Buus said. “I think there is always a set of challenges when transitioning from the service to civilian life, and I believe the challenges can be compounded in a more rural setting where you’re not sure where to turn.”
Buus has already signed up for the passport and its first activity—yoga. Having recently returned from a 23rd Veteran retreat in Alaska, Buus says a yoga class was his “Aha moment.”
“I’m fairly active, but yoga isn’t something I really considered in my wheelhouse,” he said. “During the class, the teacher was asking some fairly basic but important questions on how your body and mind work together….
I found myself really struggling with the questions she was asking.
“When I discovered I probably knew more about how my truck operated than my body and mind, it really opened my eyes.”
Buus is now encouraging other veterans to get involved with United for Veterans and/or give the Veterans Wellness Passport a try.
“The military does a great job reinforcing the ‘drink water and change your socks’ part, but sometimes we forget to slow down and take a breath,” he said. “It will help you with many aspects of your life.”
Also, he adds with a smile, “I promise I won’t wear yoga pants.”
Spring Veterans Wellness Passport activities
• Thursday, April 8 through Thursday, May
13: Weekly yoga class at 7 p.m. every Thursday at Rooted Circles in Hibbing.
• Tuesday, May 11: Bike ride at 5:30 p.m. on
the Mesabi Trail, led by 30West Fitness and
Recreation in Chisholm.
• Sunday, June 13—Fishing at Veterans on
the Lake Resort in Ely. Fishing will be from 10
a.m. – 2 p.m., followed by a fireside fish fry.
To learn more about UWNEMN/UFV’s Veterans Wellness Passport program, visit www.unitedwaynmen.org/ufv-wellness. To support United for Veterans, donations can be mailed to 608 East Drive, Chisholm MN 55719 or made online at www.unitedwaynemn.org/ give.