A couple weeks into her second quarter at the Colorado Academy of Veterinary Technology in Colorado Springs, Alexandra Garritson is a year-and-a-half away from fulfilling her lifelong dream to work with animals.
Getting there on her own has been a feat in itself. Not only did Garritson work two jobs and 14-hour days to pay her way, but she also did it after enduring the loss of her fiancé, U.S. Army Corp. Justin Clouse, in 2014.
Garritson and Clouse had a plan.
"Justin was going to graduate from the Army and take a full-time job so I could go to school and work part-time."
Then, Garritson's plan — and her life –- changed. During his second deployment in Afghanistan, Clouse lost his life in friendly fire; another Army soldier, three special forces soldiers and one Afghani soldier were also killed.
"After that happened, I had to find out how to take care of the bills on my own and go to school. I realized I would have to pay for school by myself; and, I thought, 'Wouldn't it be nice if there was a scholarship available?' I found a few for military families, but they were very strict –- they were for children or widows."
Unable to find a scholarship that fit her special circumstances, and not willing to give up on her dream, Garritson took matters into her own hands: She created the HEROES Scholarship.
"I wanted to put a positive spin on what happened. This is a terrible thing that a lot of us have gone through. … I had just gotten back on my feet after everything that happened, and I decided, 'I'm going to do it today, because no one else will,’” Garritson said.
The HEROES Scholarship provides non-married partners of fallen military service members with financial assistance to attend college. Candidates must demonstrate the organization's six core pillars: honoring loved ones, empowering themselves, renewing their love of life, overcoming hardships, evolving their spirits and supporting each other.
Garritson said HEROES supports partners of fallen military service members financially and emotionally.
"I was in a really bad place when my fiancé passed, and I had the support of a peer mentor from Tragedy Assistance from Peer Survivors. That support really turned me around and it let me plan my future again,” she said. “When I started looking at school, I got that sinking feeling because I didn't know how I was going to pay for it. With the scholarship, I'm paying it forward.”
She took on two jobs to save money to pay for her education, but that's not a viable option for everyone, Garrison said.
HEROES will host a benefit concert Aug. 11 to raise funds that will go directly to the scholarship fund. Garritson said she hopes to name the first scholarship recipient this fall. The ultimate goal is to award one to two significant scholarships each year, she said.
The organization's first event is themed around music because music comforted her in her time of need, Garrison said. "Music healed me tremendously after Justin passed because it helped me cope, and I connected to Justin when he was alive through music."
Garritson is also working on securing a nonprofit status for HEROES so she can assist more people in need.
"I tried to think of people who have it worse off than I do. I had a helping hand, emotionally,” she said. “I want to be a helping hand for someone else now... I want to be able to say, 'You're not alone.'"
The first annual HEROES Benefit Concert will kick off Aug. 11 at 6 p.m. at Hillside Gardens, 1006 S. Institute Street in Colorado Springs. The event will feature musical artists Ned Ledoux and Sandy Wells. General admission is $16.
For more information visit http://heroesscholarshipwebs.com. To purchase tickets, click "News/Updates."
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Every Monday evening during the summer break this year, the field at Evans International Elementary School in Falcon School District 49 became the site of a “Kick-Around,” hosted by the SeSSI (Southeast Springs Soccer Initiative).
Dave Pratt, D 49 safety and security specialist, helped create the SeSSI program in 2014, along with Sarah Sherwin, coordinator for Senate Bill 94, which is a youth outreach initiative that provides alternatives to detention for youth offenders. Pratt is a former Colorado Springs Police Department officer who retired in July 2015, and then immediately went to work for D 49.
When SeSSI started, Pratt said Soaring Eagles Park and Deerfield Hills Community Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, were the only parks that offered the program. “One night (for each park) per week for two hours, we brought soccer to the kids,” he said. “We set up goals, divided up into teams based on age and skill level, and gave away free cleats and shin guards.”
The first night, 10 kids showed up for the Kick-Around; and, by the end of the summer, more than 700 kids attended between the two parks, according to the SeSSI website. The program has since expanded to five days and four more parks, Pratt said. Additionally, SeSSI offers free weeklong camps during the day at each park, he said.
Kids range from ages 3 to 18, and they do not need to have any prior exposure or experience with soccer. “Our whole philosophy is built around the same ideal they use in Brazil, Italy and France, where you just show up to a field and play,” Pratt said. “The best way to teach soccer is to play soccer. The best players are the ones that played on the dirt fields with whatever they could kick.”
The website states that the program’s mission is “to bridge the poverty gap by breaking down barriers that restrict children in low-income households access to soccer.”
Matt Stelmaszek, director of SeSSI, said, “We do not say, ‘Hey, we have free soccer but you have to come to Briargate,’” he said. “We are bringing the program to these parks that may be a bit more dangerous. The parks we go to are identified by violent crimes committed by youth and gang-related violence in the area.”
Pratt said a major goal of the program is to create a connection between the community and the local law enforcement officers. One way SeSSI has accomplished that goal is by providing the officers at the CSPD Sand Creek Division with a bag of soccer balls to hand out to kids in the community. “We challenged our officers to get out there and give them out,” he said. “It helps them connect with the community and helps the kids see that these cops are real people. It has been great for breaking down walls and building bridges.”
Throughout the community, SeSSI has created partnerships with various businesses and organizations, including Centura Health, the El Paso County District Attorney’s Office, the EPC Sheriff’s Department, the Colorado Springs Switchbacks Football Club (a professional soccer league), the YMCA of the Pikes Peak Region and the Colorado Rush Soccer Club (based in Littleton, Colorado), Pratt said.
D 49 is the first school district to support the program, Pratt said. The amount of support has been impressive, from offering up the field at Evans Elementary to purchasing goals for the kids to use during the Kick-Arounds, he said.
With about 2,000 kids participating this past summer, Stelmaszek said it is clear there is a desire and a need for the program, from kids and parents as well. “The parents are always there, either playing or watching,” he said. “It is crazy how alive these parks come when we are out there.”
Amber Dieckmann, a D 49 parent with two children who participate in the program, said her kids have been coming to the Evans Elementary Kick-Around events since they started at the beginning of the summer. “The kids just want to do it more and more,” she said. “They are always excited, and it really wears them out.”
Claudia Rivera, a community member whose children attend Roosevelt Charter Academy in Colorado Springs School District 11, said her 11-year-old son no longer sits inside playing video games all day, thanks to SeSSI. “He really likes it,” she said. “He is not tired all day and has already lost five pounds. We would love to be able to do this all year.”
Currently, SeSSI is only offered during the summer months, but if enough resources can be attained, the option to continue the program through the school year and in other D 49 schools is a viable one, Stelmaszek said.