It all sounded too good to be true.
When Dawn and Kevin Rast heard about a program where Fort Drum families were invited to the Thousand Islands for a weekend, totally free of charge, they jumped at the chance. After all, they’d never EVER taken a real vacation. Now someone wanted to give them a whole weekend in the Thousand Islands. It was a dream come true.
But that was the problem. It was SO perfect, it sounded fishy. After all, what kind of people would invite complete strangers to share their summer cottage for a weekend? No one was asking for money. Plus, the island was isolated; the only way on or off was by boat. If things went awry, they thought, there would be no escape.
Dawn was so concerned that she made sure to leave their contact information with a friend, with instructions to contact the authorities if they hadn’t been heard from by Sunday night.
But it was no scam. On the contrary, it turned out to be one of the best weekends the Rast family had ever had.
That dream weekend in the Islands was part of a program called “1000 Thanks,” established only a few months before by two Thousand Island homeowners as a way to give back -- and say thank you -- to Fort Drum families.
The idea came together on a dreary March weekend last year, when Cheryl and James Navarra of Webster, and Lisa and Michael Ryan of Liverpool had come to the Thousand Islands off-season to check on their Mink Island cottages. One evening they were at O’Brien’s Restaurant in Clayton watching a basketball game. They noticed a family from Fort Drum sitting near them, and asked them, “Who are you cheering for?”
The answer they got surprised them: “We’re cheering that our son has come home.”
The response touched them deeply. “We began to think about how blessed we were to be able to enjoy the Islands with our loved ones each summer,” Navarra said, “and wondered how we could share our good fortune with military families.”
“We couldn’t donate a lot of money, but we could give our time and talent and blessings,” she added. “What better way than to host a family for a Thousand Island getaway weekend?”
That evening, 1000 Thanks was born.
The first step was to coordinate with Fort Drum officials, who put out the word they were looking for families interested in getting away for a weekend. Then they sat back and hoped they’d get some response.
They needn’t have worried. Within 48 hours, they’d already received more than 30 applications. But since the couples only had two homes to offer, they could only host two families. They had to choose.
The first one was easy. The Rast family – Dawn, Kevin and their three children -- had recently been named Family of the Year by officials at Fort Drum. The weekend in the Islands would be part of their "reward."
The second family -- Stephanie and Glenn Adams-Figueroa, their three children and their dog -- were chosen for one simple reason, according to 1000 Thanks co-founder Lisa Ryan: “We loved their story.”
“Glenn had already seen four deployments, and had missed the birth of his son,” she said. “They were new to the area, were celebrating their tenth wedding anniversary in December, and had three young children. Plus, he was about to be deployed again.”
“There was a great need for family bonding away from the base.”
The Rasts were the first to make the trip north to the islands. As it turned out, Dawn wasn’t the only one who was apprehensive about the weekend. After all, the Navarras had never done anything like this, either.
“I was nervous about having the Rast family come,” Cheryl admitted. “I was worried that they’d assume we had one of those mansions and they were going to be treated like royalty.”
So those first few hours were a little awkward for both families as they got to know one another. It didn’t take long, though, before everyone relaxed and the weekend could begin in earnest.
And wow, did it ever.
The Navarras did their best to pack an entire Thousand Island summer into one weekend for their guests. They went fishing and boating. They took a sunset cruise and a “Gilligan’s Island Tour” of the Canadian and American sides. They had a picnic lunch at Keewadin State Park. They went swimming and toured Singer Castle. They lit up the night sky with fireworks.
And there was plenty of time to just hang around the cottage and play board games, explore the island, or just stretch out in the hammock and do absolutely nothing but enjoy the relaxation and solitude of a Thousand Island summer.
But of all the things they did, one stood out as a perfect example of what the weekend was all about.
It took no time that first day for Kevin and the kids to go tubing, hopping wakes and doing figure eights. Dawn however, was content to watch the whole thing from the dock. No WAY was she going to do that, she insisted.
But the kids kept pestering her, and Cheryl even pinky-swore her that if she would just try it, James would not let her fall off. So with her husband at her side for moral support, Dawn nervously climbed onto the tube and went for a spin.
The smile that appeared on her face stretched wider than the river. Even her son remarked, “I’ve never seen my mom laugh so hard in my life.”
It was like the whole purpose of the weekend was captured in that one moment.
“I get a chance to get away from it all sometimes,” Kevin Rast said, “but my wife never does.” Even the kids discovered a new side of life; they’d all made sure to pack their electronics for their weekend on the island, but the games never saw the light of day.
Dawn noticed. “I’ve never seen my kids behave so well,” she joked. “There must be something in the water.”
Needless to say, by the time the Rasts had to pack up and go, everyone could laugh about their first-day jitters. “We were so desperate for a vacation, we were willing to take the risk” that it was all a scam, Dawn said.
Instead, for one incredible weekend, they were able to put the stress and monotony of military life behind them. It was their first real vacation, and most certainly the best one.
“We came as strangers, but left as friends,” Cheryl said. “This is the greatest gift I’ve ever given.”
Well, that and the magical river water she sent home with Dawn, so she could sprinkle it on her kids when they started to misbehave.
This summer the Ryans and Navarras would like to extend the offer of a weekend in the Thousand Islands to many more Fort Drum families. They’re actively soliciting more summer residents willing to open their homes for a weekend. The only real cost is to provide meals. The boating, hiking, swimming, picnicking, tubing and fishing -- and the great feeling you get from helping our hometown heroes -- are all free.
For more information about 1000 Thanks and how you can help, log onto www.1000Thanks.us, or call Cheryl Navarra at (585) 703-2191 or Lisa Ryan at (315) 383-1078.
By Missy L. Rosenberry
Missy Rosenberry lives in Webster, NY with her husband Jack. When not at her full-time job as a library teaching assistant at one of Webster's high schools, you'll likely find her sitting at her laptop, working on her daily blog or weekly column for Rochester Democrat and Chronicle newspaper.
Missy found out about 1000 Thanks from her Webster Thomas High School teaching colleague Cheryl Navarra, one of the organization's founders. She immediately knew this was a cause people needed to hear about, and offered to help publicize it through her column, press releases and this month's article in Thousand Islands Life.