Tag Archives: Catch a Lift Foundation

Sgt. Nikki Elder Catches A Lift

It’s easy to ignore Veterans Day.

Sure, banks and the post office are closed. But many offices — and the stock market — are open. School is on.

Westport is not exactly a military town. The veterans who live here served mostly in long-ago wars. We’re almost entirely untouched by the endless battles in Iraq and Afghanistan. That conflict — and the men and women who fight there — is out of sight, out of mind.

But it sure isn’t for those who were wounded there.

The Catch a Lift Fund is a lifeline for those “other people.” Created by a woman whose brother volunteered after 9/11 and was killed in Afghanistan, it provides gym memberships and home gym equipment to help wounded post-9/11 service members heal physically and mentally, through physical fitness.

Thanks to one Westporter, however — and his dedicated crew of friends and supporters — Catch a Lift has become a prized, and very special, “local” organization.

In just 5 years, Catch a Lift’s Veterans Day event has become one of the year’s most important fundraisers.

I went to my first one 2 years ago. It was among the most moving nights of my life.

Catch a Lift veterans, at last year’s Birchwood Country Club event.

Adam Vengrow is the inspiration behind this inspiring evening. The next one is Friday, November 8 (7 p.m.), at Birchwood Country Club.

There’s great food and beverages. There’s a DJ, and a video.

But all that pales in comparison to the guests of honor. More than a dozen veterans will be there, mixing and mingling. One will speak. The room will fall silent. It’s a life-changing experience.

The men and women include double and triple amputees. Some are in wheelchairs; others use canes. But this is no pity party. The spirit, energy, life and joy in the group is astonishing.

These veterans are not your typical Westporters. They enlisted just after — or during — high school. They’ve seen things you and I can’t imagine (and, because the war is so distant, never read about).

They have suffered unfathomably — for their country, and us. Thanks to Catch a Lift, they’ve rebuilt their lives. Next month, they’ll honor us with their presence.

Sgt. Nikki Elder (ret.) was at Birchwood last year. She did not speak. This year she will.

Sgt. Nikki Elder

The upstate New York native joined the Navy, and worked as a cryptologic technician with the National Security Agency.

She got out — and then, after 9/11, Elder joined the Army National Guard. In 2004 and ’05, she was deployed to Afghanistan.

She medically retired in 2013. Elder went to grad school, earning a master’s in nutrition. That’s her job now. So is being a single mother to 2 sons.

For years, she battled PTSD. She thought she could conquer it on her own. One day, at a retreat, a fellow veteran told Elder “you have to get your life together.” She mentioned Catch a Lift.

The organization connected Elder with a squad leader, who held her accountable. It took a while — “I fought it,” she admits — but CAL stayed with her.

“I got a lot more out of it than a gym membership,” Elder says. “They believed in me, when I didn’t even believe in myself.”

Nikki Elder (5th from left), at a Catch a Lift event.

Last year she went to Birchwood Country Club, for the 4th annual Catch a Lift fundraiser.

That was the turning point.

“I hadn’t realized the support that was out there, until I saw it in Westport,” Elder recalls. “I had been fighting it. I was guilty, ashamed, depressed, angry. Catch a Lift, and the people in Westport, made me realize I wasn’t broken.”

The weekend “blew me away,” Elder says. “I didn’t know what to expect. But people came up and started talking. I had not been comfortable being complimented, or called a hero. But they genuinely appreciated what I did. It was amazing. I started being okay with thank-yous.”

Vengrow, his fellow organizer Andy Berman, and others were “so enthusiastic. They believed in us. They said ‘you can do this.’ There was no doubt in their minds. They sparked something in me that hasn’t stopped. They gave me confidence I hadn’t felt since I was in the service.”

Today, she has lost 140 pounds from her maximum of 264. She is off all her PTDS medications. “I’m myself again,” she marvels.

Nikki Elder (right) with a fellow Catch a Lift veteran.

She looks forward to returning to this year’s gala. “I want to support Westport, because Westport supported me,” Elder says.

For the past year, she has kept in touch with some of the people — veterans and civilians — she met here. They still encourage each other.

“It’s contagious. It’s infectious. I love it!” she says.

Westport loves Sgt. Nikki Elder, and all her Catch a Lift colleagues, too.

(In addition to Sgt. Nikki Elder, the November 8 event features 2-star General Charles W. Whittington and Catch a Lift founder Lynn Coffland, plus food, drinks and music. Click here for tickets. The next day, the veterans pay it forward by helping MyTeamTriumph, a program for people with disabilities who otherwise could not participate in endurance events like triathlons and road races.) 

Unsung Hero #23

We don’t often think of Westport as a vocal, support-our-troops town.

Westporters are as patriotic as any Americans. We’ve got our share of veterans. But very few served after 9/11. The difficult, ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are far from most of our minds.

Yet with tremendous energy, incredible organizing skills, plenty of passion — and the leadership qualities of the best generals in history — Adam Vengrow has put Westport on the military map.

He’s the driving force behind our great relationship with Catch a Lift. The national organization provides gym memberships and home equipment, fitness programs and motivational peer support to post-9/11 combat-wounded military personnel, aiding in their physical and mental recovery.

It’s an amazing group, accomplishing tremendous things. But Westport holds a special place in Catch a Lift’s heart.

Once a year, veterans come to town for a “fitness and knowledge boot camp”: strength and conditioning, yoga, spinning and more. Businesses like JoyrideCrossfit and Achieve that usually compete for customers join hands to help.

Also once a year — on Veterans Day — Adam organizes a fundraiser for Catch a Lift.

Last Saturday’s event was phenomenal. Birchwood Country Club was packed. A great cross-section of Westporters — veterans and those who never served; old and young; Republicans, Democrats and everyone else — joined together to help Catch a Lift.

Adam Vengrow (right) and Jeremiah Montell — a Marine and Navy veteran of Iran and Afghanistan — at Saturday’s Catch a Lift fundraiser.

The food and conversation were great. The silent auction was high-end. The video brought tears to all.

But the highlight of the evening was the veterans themselves. These young men and women talked about losing limbs, coming home to homelessness, battling obstacles from PTSD to losing custody of their child.

Yet they spoke too of triumphs: losing 100 pounds; entering and graduating from college; healing themselves, helping others — and regaining custody of that child.

Marine veteran Sarah Rudder lost her foot in an accident. Her story of fortitude inspired the packed crowd at Birchwood Country Club.

The fundraiser is just a part of their weekend in Westport. Earlier in the day, the Police Department hosted them for an intense workout. The day before, they’d talked to Staples athletes.

When they spoke so eloquently and passionately at Birchwood, the veterans made clear how much Westport meant to them. It was equally clear how much they meant to those of us in the audience.

Adam does not do this alone. He’s got a high-powered day job, and gets plenty of help from Andy Berman and batallions of other volunteers. (One woman called herself “part of Adam’s Army.”) He thanked them all on Saturday.

But the Westport/Catch a Lift connection would not be possible without Adam Vengrow. He shares something special with the brave men and women he brought to Birchwood on Saturday: He too is an Unsung Hero.

(If you know an Unsung Hero who should be recognized, email dwoog@optonline.net)