A soldier for life
Disabled veteran perseveres with help of Villages organization.
Story: Leigh Neely // Photos: Anthony Rao
Sgt. Pam Kelly had been in the U.S. Army for 17 years, joining in 1989. She loved every minute of serving her country and it was to be her lifelong career. She worked in sling-load operations, which means a helicopter picks up a load and carries it from one place to another. Cables are attached to the load as the helicopter hovers above it.
During a training exercise before deployment in Iraq in 2002, a cable snapped on a helicopter and the load fell on Pam, leaving her a quadriplegic. No longer able to do her work as an Army medic, Pam was classified as 100 percent disabled and medically retired in 2006.
“I don’t remember much after the accident, and the doctor says I most likely won’t get my memory back,” Pam says. “It’s good and it’s bad, but I would like to know how it went.”
She says in a YouTube video about the experience that she felt like she “lost my soul and lost my life” with the accident.
“Living as a civilian was hard for me. I thought my career was always going to be in the military and when that was gone, I was lost. My motto was ‘Once you become a soldier, you’re always a soldier.’”
After officially leaving the Army, Pam found a home in Tampa and basically shut herself away from the public. A private person by nature, she felt she had no place in society, so she chose to turn inward and avoid people. But she began to realize she couldn’t live that way forever.
“I realized in 2007 I needed to get off the drugs,” she says. “And a friend invited me to watch him do adaptive cycling. I decided I could do that and it changed my life.”
Though she had the use of only her left arm, Pam was able to ride a recumbent bike with hand controls. She loved cycling and loved being outside and part of such an active and invigorating group. Cycling was the perfect outlet for her, and she cycled across America and also won multiple medals in adaptive swimming, cycling, and archery.
Once again, however, she hit an obstacle and everything changed.
“I had to have emergency surgery on my left shoulder and elbow, and it left me with nerve damage. I’ve had three major surgeries in two years, and I’m recovering from the last one now,” Pam says. “I have better use of my arm, but there is still nerve damage.”
The nerve damage ended her participation in adaptive sports, something else she loved dearly.
Pam withdrew again, but then she met Marie Bogdonoff, founder of Villagers for Veterans, who knew exactly what the veteran needed to help her adapt this time: a Villages home where she could have independence and get around without help from others, and a family to support her since she has no living family members.
“I’m so happy with all that has happened for Pam,” Marie says. “The change I’ve seen in her in the past three years is nothing short of a miracle. She was quiet and withdrawn, and now she is happy and outgoing, getting to do something she’s never done before.”
Villagers for Veterans took on the task of getting a new home for Pam because her current home is not adaptable for her. Because her injury was the result of a training exercise and not in combat, she didn’t qualify for a smart home like those often provided by other nonprofit veterans organizations.
However, Villagers for Veterans has no such restrictions. Its commitment is to give severely injured veterans the tools they need to enjoy an independent lifestyle even if that means providing a home.
“Right now, she’s stuck in her house moving from her wheelchair to her recliner. We’re going to give her freedom and allow her to do the things she enjoys,” Marie says.
The house site is in the historic district of Orange Blossom Gardens, near Spanish Springs Town Square. The golf cart paths will allow Pam access to anything nearby. She loves going to movies, eating out, and meeting friends for fun.
“We made sure I could go over the golf cart bridge with my power chair,” Pam says with a laugh. “When I go to The Villages, I love going to the town squares and listening to the different bands. I love all kinds of music. It’s so relaxing and it helps take away the negative things in the world.”
Pam is also excited about another aspect of living in her new place: the chance to help other veterans. “I’m looking to the future and moving forward. I can’t wait to get to The Villages and help out other veterans. That’s going to be a part of the things I do,” she says.
At this point in the project, the old house has been demolished, and Marie and Villagers for Veterans are looking for people who are willing to donate time, materials, their building experience, and whatever is needed to “make it happen” for Pam. The organization refers to this project as “A House Built with Love.” The hard work has paid off as it has reached the $150,000 mark and is on target for getting the house done within its time frame.
In addition to the annual Orchid Gala fundraiser, the organization had a series of concerts in October to raise funds and also has concerts entitled, “Country Music Salutes Our Veterans” scheduled for Nov. 14-15 at Savannah Center.
The shows will feature an all-star cast of Villagers providing some of the best country music along with Americana music, dancing, and comedy. Tickets cost $18 for residents and $23 for nonresidents, and are available at all box offices in The Villages and online at thevillagesentertainment.com.
On Nov. 30, Hollywood and the Tropix Band will perform Jimmy Buffet-style music while everyone enjoys a meal from OakWood Smokehouse & Grill for $25 at SeaBreeze Recreation Center. Marie says it will be a delightful evening of music and dance.
While all this is happening, Pam spends as much time in The Villages as she can, enjoying the freedom and amenities that will soon be hers full time.
“I think The Villages responds to veterans above and beyond 100 percent. Anytime they get a chance to help a veteran, they take it,” Pam says. “That’s another great benefit of living in The Villages, that I will be around other veterans, and maybe I can help them, too.”
Nuns and ‘The Nutcracker’
If you have your own TV station, you must have a sensational show, but some things never work as they should.
Story: Leigh Neely
If watching “The Nutcracker” is one of your favorite Christmas traditions, you’ll want to see the show from SMASH Productions coming up in December in The Villages. It may not be what you’re expecting, but it will be entertaining.
As part of the “Nunsense” trilogy, “Nuncrackers,” book, music, and lyrics by Dan Goggin, is the third installment of these plays and includes the beloved nuns you’ll remember from the other two shows. The Mother Superior, Sister Mary Regina, with her famous clicker; Sister Mary Hubert, Sister Robert Ann, and all the other nuns come together to tape their Christmas extravaganza to run on their basement cable access TV station at the Mount Saint Helen’s convent.
“Of course, it all falls apart,” says Bob Stehman, director of the show. “But it also has the tender moments that everyone loves.”
Bob became involved with SMASH Productions when the founders decided they wanted to move into Broadway shows after writing and performing two original shows that had sold-out performances.
“Our first show was a USO show, and we donated funds to the Honor Flight,” says Susan Feinberg, who founded SMASH Productions with her friend Carolyn Hoffman. “Then we did ‘When You Wish Upon a Mouse,’ which was a salute to Disney. All those shows sold out, too.”
Carolyn says, “It was a fun play, and I think people responded to the humor. Both shows had lots of humor.”
All proceeds from that show went to Villagers for Veterans. It’s all about charity for these two ladies, who both work with various groups in The Villages. Susan especially enjoys working with Patriot Service Dogs and actually has her own pets performing in the “dog circus” the group does as a fundraiser.
“When we did the Disney show, the kids loved it,” Susan said. “We have a group of people that are committed. I do more of the business side of the productions, but our talents are different, and it all blends beautifully. We usually know who we want for the roles, and then we’ll audition if we have to, but we like that we have a feeling of family.”
The two women say what they love best about their company of performers and theater people is that they’re all committed to doing their jobs in a professional manner. They have many people in the troupe who have been with them from day one, including Kevin O’Connell, the music director, Bob, who directs and often acts in productions, Billie Thatcher, singer and actress, Frank Olive, assistant director who also does set designs, costumes, and props, and many others.
Doing “Nuncrackers” was easier because many members of the cast were in “Nunsense,” so they’re already prepared for their roles and know the personalities of the characters. One addition to this play has been children.
“Whenever you have kids in a show, it adds another dynamic,” Bob says. “The thing about working with kids is they learn all our parts, too.”
When he went in search of children for auditions, he went to a performance at The Villages Charter School presented by Hunter Britton, choral director. “What she did with those kids just blew me away,” he adds.
When he called for auditions, nine children showed up for four roles. Bob says he was impressed with all the children, wishing he’d had a place for all of them. The four children in the play are Ethan Adams-Rae, 8, who plays Billy; MaKenzie Rees, 9, who is Maria; Noah Winslett, 11, is John; and Josie McDonald, 13, is Louise.
“They are such quick studies, and they work very hard,” Bob says. “I’m very impressed with their spirit and joy. They’re very talented.”
Barbara Byers will perform in the play and also taught the children the choreography, drawing on her experience from working with the Entertainment Department at Disney World.
“I worked with the characters who meet and greet guests, parades…helping in providing the magic,” she says with a smile. “I became close friends with a fairy godmother and a chipmunk.”
The charm behind those characters may have been Barbara’s.
Before moving to The Villages, Barbara had her own dance studio in Tampa.
“I’m happy to be coming back and working with children. This is not a large cast, so we’re more like family. We make sure everything is detailed and has a professional feel to it,” she says. “And it must be fun; it must look natural and easy. That’s a sign of professionalism.”
Barbara believes the music and movements in musicals lift people’s spirits, and that’s why audiences enjoy them so much. “I enjoy sharing what I know and bringing that joy to the stage for others,” she says.
Bob, however, says he directs with precision. “I’m very detailed.”
Susan, with a chuckle, translates that to OCD.
“Because I’ve been an actor and dancer, I can let them know what I need from them,” he adds.
SMASH Productions already has plans for its next show, “Hello, Dolly,” with Billie in the starring role.
“Life is too short to be sad,” Carolyn says. “When we’re here, we’re having a good time and working professionally.”
“The fact that we have live music in our shows adds to the quality,” Susan adds.
“Nuncrackers” is presented by arrangement with Tams-Witmark Music Library Inc. in New York. Performances are Dec. 4-6 at the Savannah Center, 1575 Buena Vista Blvd., in The Villages. Tickets can be purchased at the Villages box offices or thevillagesentertainment.com. The price is $30 for residents and $35 for the general public.