BOTTINEAU - The New York Says Thank You Foundation was formed in the wake of the destruction of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, as a way to help other communities around the country the way New York City was helped after that tragic day. This year, on the eve of the 11th anniversary of those attacks, the foundation is thanking the people of Bottineau.
Hundreds of volunteers from around the country have descended on Bottineau Winter Park for the past week, helping to build Annie's House, a new chalet that will be North Dakota's first adaptive ski facility. It will be used to teach disabled children, young adults and wounded warriors how to ski. It is being built to honor the memory of Ann Nicole Nelson, the Stanley native who was the only North Dakotan to die in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City.
Along with building Annie's House, other activities held throughout the week included building some trails and the Stars of Hope project, which allows people to paint stars offering words of encouragement that are then hung in areas of a community that could use a helping hand.
Dan Feldner/MDN • The old chalet at Bottineau Winter Park can be seen in the lower left while the new one, dubbed Annie’s House, can be seen under construction in the upper right Saturday afternoon. The new ski lodge will replace several different buildings at the park and will also be North Dakota’s first adaptive ski facility.
Diane Olson, one of the coordinators of the Annie's House build, said firefighters have a very strong presence among the volunteers. A group of firefighters from Louisiana will have to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac when they return home, but they weren't letting that get in the way of helping the people of Bottineau.
"We have firefighters from Slidell, La., and of course they helped during (Hurricane) Katrina, and they just lost their fire hall ...," Olson said. "That was pretty sad."
Volunteers aren't just pounding nails and sawing wood, either. It takes an equally dedicated force to provide meals for all those people, and the residents of Bottineau have certainly stepped up to the task.
"We've been feeding on an average of probably 250 to 300 people at every meal - breakfast, lunch and dinner," Olson said. "And it's been all done by volunteers from our community. We've had our church groups, we've had facilities like the hospital, the Good Samaritan Center, the college, they've all provided free meals."
Cedric Jacobson, another coordinator who just stepped down from the board of Bottineau Winter Park this past year after 18 years of service, said he is staying around as a volunteer to help with Annie's House. He said the reason for the project is to make a dream of Ann Nicole Nelson's come true.
"She had a bucket list of 36 things and some of them included skiing and helping other people," Jacobson said. "She loved to ski, she loved to help kids, so this adaptive ski center will help those that are physically challenged and enjoy the outdoor sport."
Her parents, Gary and Jenette Nelson, became involved with the New York Says Thank You Foundation and came to know its founder, Jeff Parness, over the past few years. When Parness heard about Ann Nicole Nelson's bucket list, he decided that needed to be his foundation's next project.
Jacobson said the foundation started its work 11 years ago by trucking toys to children affected by wildfires in San Diego. Then something magical happened, and the next year people from San Diego came to help with the foundation's next project. It's been like that every year since, and now a decade's worth of people who were helped by the foundation in the past are in Bottineau to pay that help forward.
"Now here we are in year 11 and we've got ten year's worth of communities that have been helped by this foundation here. It's just unbelievably neat. People from Louisiana, New York, New Jersey, Kentucky, Illinois, Georgia, Montana, from all over," Jacobson said, noting license plates from 17 different states were counted at one point. "It's also people that lost friends or relatives on 9/11. Those families have come to help because it helps them heal their tragedy 11 years ago."
As these things often do, Jacobson said the Annie's House build started with just a few people and a lot of hard work this past Sunday. He was doing some trim work around the old ski lodge around 11 a.m. when six guys walked down the hill and asked where the plans for the new chalet were. Jacobson said they were in the old chalet, and the men proceeded to get the plans, grabbed a table and walked up the hill where only half a concrete slab stood, and begin to build.
"And by Sunday night there was probably 50 volunteers that had showed up. And each day it's built to what you see now," Jacobson said. "So Sunday morning half the slab was poured and nothing else. So you talk about a lot of work being done."
Work by the volunteers will wrap up today, although much will remain to be done. Jacobson said they hope to have the new chalet up and running by late November, although it might not be completely finished.
The project cost about $1.5 million, and just about all of it was paid for with contributions. Jacobson said the new ski lodge has been sorely needed, as the current one was built in 1969 as a temporary measure. Forty-three years later, it's finally being replaced.
Jacobson said it's unbelievable that so many people are coming to help a small town most of them have probably never heard of before. He said Bottineau Winter Park is a nonprofit facility owned by the community of Bottineau and has always operated on a shoestring budget. He said all the help the volunteers have given over the past week has inspired him and his wife to look at going wherever the New York Says Thank You Foundation will be next year and volunteering their own time to give someone else the lift Bottineau is getting this year.
"It's so heartwarming to, number one see all the volunteers from across the country, but also to see the local community just come out and support it big time, both financially and with their time helping out," Jacobson said. "Everybody here is not here for themselves. They are volunteering for something else, and that is just so neat to see. Everyone here is a good person because they're not selfish, they're here donating their time and energy and that part is just so amazing. It's overwhelming to see it all."