We salute Marie Bogdonoff and Villagers for Veterans for making a huge difference in the lives of those who have served their country and now need a helping hand.
If you’re not familiar with this group, it was started by Bogdonoff after she retired to The Villages and decided to make volunteering a priority in her life. She attended a Christmas party in December 2014 at Walter Reed Medical Center and met 15 injured warriors. From there, Villagers for Veterans – a 100-percent volunteer organization – was born and lives have been changed for the better ever since.
This past Tuesday, Bogdonoff and company donated a whopping $100,000 to Villages Honor Flight to pay for an all-female flight to Washington, D.C. We’re also quite fond of Honor Flight and we think their mission to take veterans to our nation’s capital to see the monuments dedicated in their honor is quite noble. And to know that they now have the money to conduct a flight comprised of 65 veterans, 65 guardians and volunteers – all females – is really quite special and a huge accomplishment by Villagers for Veterans volunteers who raised the money through everything from bingo and trivia events to an annual gala.
As is usually the case with Bogdonoff, she was quick to offer credit for the huge accomplishment – during the COVID-19 pandemic, no less – to others.
“Through the generosity of the people that live here in The Villages and the people that support both Honor Flight and Villagers for Veterans, and of course, all the women veterans, we able to raise $100,000 that’s going to this flight,” she said.
Needless to say, Villages Honor Flight was more than happy to accept the donation for a flight that will make history when it takes place. Liza Walters, who serves as vice president of operations for the group and will be the flight director on the flight, said the donation is the largest her organization has ever received.
“I think it’s absolutely incredible. These ladies are fantastic,” she said. “Marie is like a dynamo. I don’t know how she does it.”
Joe Hambright, who serves as chairman of the board of Villages Honor Flight, said they agreed to be a part of the project about a year ago and were amazed at how fast Villagers for Veterans raised the money for the extra flight, which won’t push any current veterans back on the waiting list.
“It costs a lot of money to take all these people to Washington and they did it in record time,” he said. “It’s amazing what they were able to do.”
Of course, this project is just one of many Villagers for Veterans has been involved in over the past several years. In June, the group presented disabled Army Sgt. Pam Kelly with a new smart home on the Historic Side of The Villages following an extensive fundraising campaign. Kelly suffered a devastating injury in 2002 while training for deployment to Iraq, which left her permanently paralyzed with very limited use of one arm.
Kelly, who once said she’s an Army sergeant who doesn’t cry, teared up that day as she talked about what Bogdonoff means to her.
“If I had a second mother, I would want it to be Marie,” said Kelly, who in November 2019 took part in a flightless Villages Honor Flight. “She’s my family and it will be that way until the day I die and beyond. She has changed my life.”
Bogdonoff said she also considers Kelly as part of her family and she’s thrilled with how she’s changed over the years they’ve known each other.
“She’s just become a full person in the sense that she feels that her life is worth living,” Bogdonoff said. “I think it’s made her realize that she’ll never be alone, not in this community anyway. She doesn’t have to worry about anything because there are people here who will have her back.”
The always busy Bogdonoff also has brought actor and veteran activist Gary Sinise to The Villages twice. In February 2019, the “Forrest Gump” star who played the part of Lt. Dan appeared at an event at the Savannah Center, where he talked about his best-selling book, “Grateful American: A Journey From Self to Service.” Each member of the audience received a copy, which details Sinise’s life story, from troubled kid to Hollywood star to activist for veterans.
In October 2019, Sinise was back in The Villages with his Lt. Dan Band, rocking Florida’s Friendliest Hometown in front of a packed-house crowd at Lake Sumter Landing. Sinise formed the 13-piece band in 2003 as an arm of the Gary Sinise Foundation with a goal of entertaining troops, performing at USO shows and raising money to help disabled veterans.
Those who know Bogdonoff won’t be surprised to learn that after the presentation of The Villages Honor Flight donation, she wasted no time in diving into her next projects. On Saturday, Villagers for Veterans hosted a USO-themed event at Paquette’s Historical Farmall Tractor Museum in Leesburg to benefit Project SOS, which provides much-needed food to veterans and their families in the Ocala National Forest. Raising money for transition housing for homeless female veterans in Lake County also is high on the agenda.
As we said earlier, we applaud Bogdonoff and Villagers for Veterans for all they’ve done to help veterans in need. They’ve made huge differences in countless lives. And we have no doubt that they’ll continue to do the same thing for many other veterans in the years to come.
We think that’s pretty special and we bet you do, too.