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Veterans home starts program treating vets to special trips

During the first week of June, Ken Ross was treated to a special overnight trip to the North Shore of Lake Superior.

HASTINGS, Minn. -- During the first week of June, Ken Ross was treated to a special overnight trip to the North Shore of Lake Superior.

He got a free stay in a Holiday Inn suite, free meals from Grandma’s and Betty’s Pies and a train ride tour. He visited Gooseberry Falls, climbed Split Rock Lighthouse and saw Canal Park in Duluth.

Ross, 53, a resident at the Minnesota Veterans Home in Hastings, is in hospice care battling cancer. To make sure he received all the help and medical care he needed, he took the trip with two staff members from the home: Amy Bukkila, a social worker, and Mary Glaeser, a nurse practitioner. They called it “Operation: Bucket List.”

The project started with Volunteer Service Coordinator Dan Jordan. Ross had worked in the home’s woodshop for more than four years but had to take a break for medical reasons. When he came back, Jordan could tell Ross just wasn’t the same. His health continued to decline, and he had to give up the woodshop for good.

Jordan wanted to do something for Ross. Kids battling cancer have the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and Jordan figured that the veterans should be able to have something like that, too, he said.

Jordan then met with the home’s administrator to get approval for a new program. Bukkila talked with Ross to find out where he wanted to go, and then she and Glaeser volunteered to go with him. Jordan contacted establishments along the North Shore to make sure the three had a place to stay, food to eat and things to do while they were there, and got donations from his own mother and the Hastings Ford dealership to cover other costs and a future trip.

To Ross, the trip came as a surprise. When he was first approached, he figured he would get to take a day trip somewhere nearby, such as in the Twin Cities, he said. Bukkila had him write down a list of places he wanted to go, and most of it he filled up with destinations in the metro area. With one slot left to fill, he decided to write down the North Shore, not expecting there was any chance he’d actually get to go there.

He picked it because it’s a place he hadn’t been in a long time, he said. He had been there as a teenager and again in his 30s, but not since then. He likes the bluffs there, the rock formations and scenery, he said.

For Bukkila and Glaeser, the trip was not only a chance to see the scenery themselves, but also a chance to give back to a veteran.

“It was a huge honor to be able to go,” Glaeser said.

Although they were there to help Ross and take care of him, they got more out of the experience than they had to give, Bukkila said.

It was the little things that made the biggest impact, she said – such as taking pictures for Ross and seeing how interested he was in the history of the area.

On the shore of Lake Superior, Bukkila picked up rocks as keepsakes. On one, she asked Ross to sign his name and draw a little picture for her, since he’s also an artist.

Operation: Bucket List is a project Jordan intends to continue at the Veterans Home, he said. He’ll continue to work to get donations that allow veterans to experience things they’ve always wanted to do, whether it’s getting to watch a St. Paul Saints game from Bill Murray’s seats or maybe even going skydiving. The only limitation will be what people are willing to donate to give veterans a chance to check at least one item off their bucket list.