“Once you take your first ride up a lift your life will be changed forever” –Warren Miller
When Jason asked me in 2007 if I wanted to attend the New England Intercollegiate Sailing Association’s annual scheduling meeting at UVM, I responded with a resounding, “Yes!” Paired with that meeting was a trip to Sugarbush to do some skiing, and that’s where it all began…
Jason and I grew up in Massachusetts, myself in Quincy and Jason in Savin Hill. I met Jason at the UMass Boston Sailing Program where he had been the Sailing Program Director since 2004. As some know sailors are often skiers, however this sailor had never been skiing before. As a hockey player I thought I would enjoy skiing since it seemed very similar to skating, and I was eager to try something new. It’s important for me to note that this would be my first trip to the green mountain state, never before had I seen what Vermont had to offer.
My visions of skiing turned out to be pretty accurate, but not without those preliminary stumbles everyone takes. Luckily for me I had a great teacher; Jason had learned to ski when he was a child and had been an avid skier his whole life. He got me up to speed on stepping in and out of my bindings, side-stepping, skating and the fundamental pizza and French fry positions. Once those were engrained in my muscle memory and Jason was sure I could stay in control, we boarded the Welcome Mat for the first time. I can remember those first moments very vividly, we stepped off of the mat and I skated over to Jason, “Ok I want you to follow me,” he said, so I did. “Ok now turn your body where you want to go,” he said. I can recall trying so hard to turn my skis fluidly but only producing hockey stops. After a few rides on the magic carpet the magical moment happened, I completed my first turn and fell in love with skiing.
After that, Jason left me on my own for a bit so I could hone my new turning abilities, as he was ready to get some longer runs in. I graduated quickly that day to what is now the Village Quad but used to be the Village Double. Since it was a weekday I was just about the only one doing laps on Easy Rider, so the lift operator dubbed me, “Queen of the Double.” I was elated with my new title and officially addicted to skiing.
Those moments in time were almost 13 years ago. Jason and I now work for Sugarbush, he at Claybrook as a Lodging Technician and myself as the Lead Toddler Teacher at the Sugarbush Day School. You might be wondering how we ended up working for Sugarbush. Well, you see every Sugarbush employee has a story about how they started working for the mountain. If you were to interview every employee and ask why they wanted to live and work here in the Sugarbush community, I’m sure most stories would start off with a longing for a better quality of life or a passion for the outdoors.
A Look Back on how Fate brought us to Vermont:
Our story is certainly not one of glamour; we like many have seen our share of hard times. A couple of years after that first ski trip, Jason ended up loosing his job as sailing director at UMass Boston due to funding cuts. He received a severance package but nothing could replace the hard work he had dedicated to growing and developing the program and the competitive team, it was a difficult time, as he didn’t know where he would end up next. Uncertainty is nothing new for Jason, he was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis at the age of 19, despite medications, and different therapeutics, 5 years later at the age of 24 he had surgery to remove his colon and construct a J-pouch. Jason and I first met 10 years later, and after a few years of dating and a yearlong engagement, Jason and I got married in July of 2012.
We chose the top of Mt. Mansfield and elected for an intimate ceremony with just immediate family. Shortly before our wedding we had moved from Massachusetts to Mystic, CT. Jason was starting a new job with the United States Coast Guard Academy as the Assistant Offshore Sailing Coach. Things were looking up, we had some savings, and I was experimenting with my Health Science degree and working as a Physical Therapy Aide. I loved working with patients; taking them through their exercise programs and seeing them progress. We made it back to Vermont whenever we could, we were able to do one or two ski trips a winter and even did a summer canoeing trip. We vowed for each wedding anniversary, we would try to take a photo of ourselves in the very spot we were married on Mt. Mansfield. Every time we both came to Vermont neither of us wanted to leave.
Jason has never let his health stop him from living; a couple of years before our wedding in 2010 he developed a fistula, a common long-term complication of the J-pouch surgery. It didn’t stop us from trying to enjoy the outdoors together, but I knew many activities were now painful and hard for him. Bike riding was a no go, skiing was out, hiking was difficult and at times just walking became hard, but Jason did all of those things with me anyways so we could enjoy life together. The doctors we saw here only recommended procedures that were risky for Jason’s reproductive and bowel function. We muddled along, trying our best to find an answer to what seemed to be an insurmountable problem.
We found new hope when we discovered an experimental less invasive procedure in Italy. Insurance would not cover it so we just about emptied out our savings and traveled there in April of 2013 in hopes of a cure. The first procedure didn’t work. Jason’s fistula was more complex than the procedure was used to dealing with. We then elected to try the procedure one more time in December of 2013. After returning home and helping him recover we knew the procedure wasn’t successful when the fistula returned. Here we were, newly married, no savings and not sure where our future would lead us.
Due to the surgeries, Jason’s work became more difficult for him and he made the decision to resign from his position at the USCGA in April of 2014. A short time later due to budget cuts I lost my job as well. We found ourselves struggling and made the decision to leave Mystic, CT. We moved in with Jason’s parents at their home in Kingston, MA while he convalesced. In June of 2014 Jason opted for another procedure to try and help alleviate the fistula pain, this time in Boston, just days before I started a new job at the Children’s Hospital Child Care Center working as an Infant Teacher.
It was a difficult time for us; I was commuting a total of 4 hours each day, and helping Jason recover in his parent’s home, which was in the middle of a renovation at the time. As Jason healed he began looking for work, we helped with the renovation project in anyway we could: installing radiant heating, painting, tiling floors. We did it all, together as a family. In 2015 we found an apartment and we were excited to have our own place again, but I was still commuting 4 hours total, in and out of the city everyday and Jason continued to convalesce while trying to re-enter the workforce.
What about Vermont?
During the summer of 2018, change came knocking at our door again. Our rent was increasing, we hated where we lived, and we both knew we wanted more out of life. Jason had not been able to find a job due to his gap in employment, so we were surviving on credit and help from our parents whenever they were able. I remember coming home from work exhausted and Jason would talk to me about land that was for sale in VT, and that we should move there. I wanted to but didn’t know how in the world we could make it happen, especially with all of our debt and exhausted savings. Late that summer yet again due to budget cuts, I was forced to leave my position at Children’s Hospital and yet again we faced a challenge. Jason’s parents offered for us to move back in with them and help with the final stages of their renovation. We accepted. Despite not being employed, Jason found ways to utilize his life skills and education from Wentworth Institute of Technology in Facilities Planning, Management and Design to finish his parents home.
Our truck was our next obstacle giving us trouble, unable to afford a new car, Jason employed his skills again, and together we took apart our 2001 Toyota Tacoma and replaced the cylinder head. Along with living with your in-laws, I suggest auto repair as another great activity for married couples; it made us a better team and deepened our love for each other! We continued applying for jobs; Jason had a string of successful interviews with New York Yatch Club, Edson Marine and another with Sail Martha’s Vineyard. They had been his first callbacks in a very long time, but he didn’t end up making the second and third rounds of interviews. That ended up being the pivotal turning point for us.
Sugarbush becomes our family:
It was shortly after that, I got a call from Terry Barbour, I had applied for the Day School Teaching position and Terry was calling to see if I was interested in being a ski instructor. I told him that I was really looking for a full time year round position. It was then he forwarded my resume over to Sara Hurley, director of the Day School. I saw a posting for a Facilities Tech and I thought, “Jason can do that.” All of a sudden we had hope, all of a sudden we were maybe moving to Vermont? Jason applied for the Facilities Tech position and in early November of 2018 we made our way to Warren for our first interviews. Our interviews went well and we decided we were going to accept the positions.
We wanted to make the jump so badly, but housing was a huge obstacle, how would we afford it, especially with no savings to get us started. Happenstance intervened when Sugarbush acquired the Sugartree Inn. They needed someone to be the Resident Assistant for their newly acquired employee housing. Sean Heslin, the manager of facilities, recommended Jason for the RA position and that was the kismet we needed to make the move to VT. The rent was affordable, and our parents helped financially with the moving expenses. We cleared out our storage units lickety split, packed up the 26 ft U-Haul and our beloved 2001 Toyota Tacoma, and on December 16, 2018 we arrived at our destination: Warren, VT.
It was an exciting time. This was the change Jason and I needed. I settled into my job at the Day School forming new bonds with my co-workers and all of the kids. I remember my first morning, showing up and being greeted by now Wall of Fame member, Marit Tardy. She welcomed me and showed me where to begin. Jason started his work in facilities with his new buds Scotty and Neil. He had a great winter working at Mt. Ellen that year.
He still talks about that first winter every now and then and the fun that he had working with Karl Munzel and Kelly Heslin keeping the base lodge and Glen House spic and span for guests and colleagues alike. He was proud of his work, starting fires, cleaning the base lodge and Glen House, interacting with locals and staff who recognized the amount of care he put into making sure the lodge looked great. I was busy at work with my co-teachers Taylor and Sierra, giving the toddler room a much-needed makeover, employing my skills to provide a top-notch classroom for our employee and local children.
Enjoying our new world:
When we weren’t at work we were making sure the Sugartree was running smoothly and providing assistance to the J-1 students when needed. Things were going great. We were settled and had a new routine. That first winter season was wonderful. On our days off we explored our new community and did some skiing together. When Jason was working weekends I would ski at Mt. Ellen so we could say hi to one another and also so I could work on feeding my snow sliding addiction. Spring led to summer and we transitioned from skiing to hiking. That summer, Jason came down with a high fever; I thought maybe he caught something from me. He was sick for a good week or two and the fever came and went, we weren’t sure what was going on, so we did our best not to worry and kept living.
I planned a camping trip that August of 2019. For me it was my first time camping but of course like most things Jason was an old salt at it. We went to Smugglers Notch campground. I was in search of viewing the Perseid Meteor Shower, which happens every year around my birthday. We had a great couple of days; one of the highlights was hiking Toll Road together at night in search of meteors. We didn’t see many because of the full moon, but together we walked all the way to the summit of Mt. Mansfield and saw the most beautiful sunrise we had ever seen together. In that moment, we knew we had made it to where we belonged. Warren, VT was our new home and Sugarbush had become part of our family. We had found the community we were longing for.
A few days after we returned home from camping, Jason’s health took a scary turn and it became even more apparent that our new family would be there for us. Jason wasn’t feeling well. He ate dinner and immediately started to feel sick; he was up all night. I thought maybe it was norovirus. I went to work that morning and came home to check on him during my break. When I did, he said, “Something isn’t right, I think I have a blockage.” I went back to the Day School, told Sara what was going on, packed a bag and drove Jason to UVM Medical Center. We arrived on August 20th, he was admitted and sure enough he had a blockage, they tried to alleviate it using a couple of endoscopy procedures.
A few days later, Jason was stable, they had cleared the blockage using a drain, and he was ready to be discharged. Much to my apprehension, I went home to prepare to pick him up the next morning. That night I got a call at around 3:00 AM, “Your husband had a perforation, he needs emergency surgery.” I frantically asked if I could see him before that. The woman on the phone said no and that he needed to go in right away, so I asked if I could talk to him. It was silent, and then there he was, “I love you, it’s going to be ok, I love you.” I could hear the pain in his voice, “I love you too,” I said. The woman then came back on the line and told me where to go and not to drive too fast; I switched to survival mode. I packed my bags that I had reluctantly somewhat unpacked the night before, loaded up the truck, and drove into the morning sunrise towards Burlington.
“With a little Help from our Friends”
Jason had almost died that night, saved by the skillful emergency surgical team at UVM Medical Center. He lost his J-pouch and was given a permanent ileostomy. It was another challenging time for us. I reached out to Sean in facilities to let him know what had happened, they sent flowers and a lot of well wishes. I saw that Jason was feeling down, and asked Eric Dixon if John Egan could reach out to Jason. John has battled Ulcerative Colitis his whole life and has a J-pouch; I knew he was a voice Jason needed to hear. He called Jason and helped him get the motivation he needed to get up out of bed. Cyrus and Vaughn, Jason’s friends from the Mt. Ellen rental shop came to visit him. Cyrus offered comedic relief to the both of us and Vaughn serenaded us with his ukulele. Karl also stopped by to cheer Jason up bringing some stimulating literature to help pass the time.
All throughout that time our Sugarbush family supported us. Paige Smith from human resources was there to answer my questions and Sara Hurley offered to do anything she could to help. When we finally left the hospital on September 13th, we traveled back to the Valley, amidst the changing autumn leaves. When we arrived home, I helped Jason inside and started unloading the truck. It was then that Emily Andrews from housekeeping came running over to help me carry things into the house. When I returned to work a few days later, I was greeted with hugs, and gift cards to help with expenses. All of the toddlers were happy to see me, giving me hugs and saying my name. It was a great feeling to be back home.
Just as we started to settle into being home again another challenge came our way when the well pump failed at the Sugartree. Eric Dixon and his family immediately offered their condo at Snow Creek while repairs were being made and we were on the move yet again. Several days transpired as this whirlwind of events clouded our minds and the leaves turned to autumn yet again. Sugarbush then informed us that the repairs were going to take longer than expected and they offered to house us at Claybrook until the repairs were completed. Josh was there to offer kind words of support as we checked in and Elaina helped me load our bags when we checked out and were ready to head back to the Sugartree.
Community Day is a wonderful event, all about connecting and celebrating the season. Last year Community Day was truly a celebration of the community that had wrapped its arms around us in our time of need. Jason continued to heal and began to slowly gain weight. Nothing is more healing than the outdoors or the camaraderie of friends, so we decided to attend. His facilities co-workers greeted him, and I held onto to him tight, as he still got tired easily.
We managed to make our way through the courtyard for a hug from Karl and then to Super Bravo for a lift ride. Ryan was there to offer words of motivation to Jason. Once at the top, we enjoyed the view together, breathed a small sigh of relief and then rode the chairlift down, surrounded by the comfort of the community we had found and the beauty of the fall foliage.
That was almost one year ago, this weekend in fact. Jason is now stronger, back to his regular weight and adjusted to life with an ostomy, we are thankful for each day we have together. We found a new place to live, renting a lovely condo at Sugar Run from John and Rachel Bleh. We are both so grateful for the opportunities that Sugarbush has given us to utilize our many skills and talents contributing to the mountain in many ways. None of which would have been possible if we hadn’t had the support of our co-workers and our new family. If you are thinking about where you want to work this winter, consider joining our Sugarbush family. You will be welcomed with open arms, and remember…
“If you don’t do it this year, you will be one year older when you do.” –Warren Miller