Marie Bogdonoff is no stranger to hard work and multitasking. Prior to her retirement, the New York native ran five dealerships: two Lexus, a Mercedes, one Audi store, and an Acura store. “I had been in the business for a long, long time, and I was ready [for a change],” she said. “It was very stressful and I just couldn’t deal with the winters.”
It was getting increasingly difficult to deal with the winters because when she was three years old, Marie had a run-in with a formidable foe: polio. “I walk with crutches so it was very hard for me,” she said. “I wanted to move south.”
Marie and her husband Rob bought a villa in The Villages and continued to work. In 2013, they built a new home here, retired, and became full-time residents.
Now she had time on her hands. “I only knew how to work because that’s all I did,” she said. “I worked, worked, and worked. When we first came I knew I couldn’t run, play golf, or do most of the things other people do when they retire here.”
Marie realized she had to get involved in something she could sink her teeth into—something she could get passionate about—something meaningful to her. “I started researching nonprofits I could get involved in,” she said.
That was when she found The Independence Fund (INDY Fund). “They provide all-terrain track chairs for veterans as well as other mobility enhancements,” Marie explained. “I loved the idea, it just resonated with me. I have had limitations my whole life; I can’t walk on the beach and even the grass here in Florida is hard to walk on. I totally got it.”
According to their website (www.independencefund.org), “the INDY Fund is simply a vessel which brings the love and support of countless Americans directly to our heroes who need it most. One way or another, we will make sure it reaches the veterans.”
The fund has given away a thousand track chairs. “The one thing the vets will tell you is when they’re riding in their chair, no one is looking at their handicap, they’re looking at the chair, and how cool it is.
“Every chair is custom-made to meet the needs of each individual,” she continued. “But each chair costs $15,000 or more, so I decided to do a fundraiser.”
Her first fundraiser was held in April 2014, an entertainment show at the Savannah Center. The event netted $12,000, nothing to sneeze at considering this was the first time Marie ever attempted a fundraiser. “I gave away a lot of tickets to veterans, and we still managed to raise that amount of money,” she said.
A second event held in August at the American Legion netted another $11,000. Her husband Rob said it was very heartwarming to witness the generosity of so many Villagers. “One guy said he couldn’t get his group of golfers in because it was sold out so they had a golf outing and donated $1,400.”
However, Marie wasn’t done yet, not by a long shot. “Sometimes in life, God puts you on a path and things just happen,” she said. “The way our lives are here and how things have started evolving would not have happened without some divine intervention.”
It seems Marie has always wanted to do a gala—so she did.
The gala, held at the Savannah Center, included music, dinner, dancing, a silent and live auction, and guest speakers including FOX’s Jennifer Griffin. Once again, Marie invited veterans to the event. Although the room accommodates 304 people and it was a sold-out event, there was one table left empty. “One of the donors paid for a memorial table,” Marie said.
Better known in the military as a Missing Man or Fallen Comrade Table, it is left empty to honor fallen comrades. Marie’s Fallen Comrade Table included items like a military cover (hat) representing each of the five service branches; a single red rose symbolizing the love of the families left behind; a lemon wedge symbolizing the bitter fate of the soldiers who didn’t return, and an inverted glass reminding the observer that a soldier was unable to participate in a toast. Solemn reminders of the many lives lost in service to their country.
The generosity of Villagers was demonstrated over and over again at the gala. “Jennifer Griffin mentioned the track chairs and this couple said they wanted to buy a chair in memory of their son,” Marie said. “Then someone else wanted to buy one in memory of their grandson. Seven people bought track chairs that evening.”
All told, $139,602 was raised that evening—a remarkable amount for one event and a very encouraging sign: Villagers had a soft spot in their hearts for wounded veterans who desperately need their help.
Through their connection with The Independence Fund, Marie and Rob were invited to last year’s Christmas party for severely injured veterans still residing at Walter Reed Hospital. It was an experience the couple won’t soon forget.
“Once the more severely wounded veterans are released from the hospital they move into this building with their caregiver. There are about 50 or 60 of them.” Marie explained. “They’re given a small apartment to begin their new life. Then when they are able, they go home.”
The experience left an indelible impression on Marie and Rob.
“To see so many of them in one place missing one limb, two limbs, four limbs, some of them burnt. It just overwhelms you,” Marie said with a slow shake of her head and pain reflected in her eyes. “When I walked out of [Walter Reed] I said there’s no way there is going to be enough money to take care of these kids long term. They have so many things to overcome.”
Determination drove Marie to want more.
“I just wanted to connect with them,” Marie said. “In no way could I look at them and say I’ve lived my life with limitations. Any one of these kids would give up anything to be in my shoes. What do I have to complain about? I can still get in the car. I can go, I can do. So what if I can’t run a marathon? It never stopped me from having a good career or living a good life. I want these kids to know that. And if we can help you get there then let us help you.”
On the way home from that memorable visit, Marie knew they were in it for the long haul. “I knew I had to create a 501C3 (nonprofit). I knew my commitment would be long term,” she said. “Before I retired I remembered asking myself what I would do with all of my time. That trip gave me the answer.”
Three months later, there was a new nonprofit organization in town called Villagers for Veterans. “I knew the support system was here in The Villages,” Marie said. “Most people here have this feeling of wanting to give back.” Building on that, Marie is already making plans for the future.
“We have tentatively scheduled two fundraisers for Oct. 22, 2016, a red carpet event and a 5K run,” Marie said. “Each fundraiser will benefit the Gary Sinise Foundation (www.garysinisefoundation.org). Gary is the actor who played Lt. Dan in ‘Forrest Gump.’ The red carpet event features entertainment by Rocky and the Rollers, and the 5K run is appropriately called ‘Run, Forest, Run.’”
Gary’s foundation serves our nation by honoring our defenders, veterans, first responders, their families, and those in need,” Marie continued. “They do this by creating and supporting unique programs designed to entertain, educate, inspire, strengthen, and build communities.”
A Gary Sinise Foundation ambassador will be here for both events. “We look forward to working with the Gary Sinise Foundation and introducing this wonderful organization to our wonderful community,” Marie said. “No one knows better the generosity of Villagers than I. They have been extremely supportive and generous in my fundraisers that benefited The Independence Fund Track Chair Initiative.”
A book signing is also planned for Nov. 7, highlighting the book, Unbreakable Bonds—The Mighty Moms and Wounded Warriors of Walter Reed written by Dava Guerin and Kevin Ferris.
“When we were at Walter Reed we met some of these moms,” Marie said. “I bought the book and when I got home, I sobbed and sobbed. I contacted the woman who wrote the book and asked her to come here.”
Now Villagers will meet some of the wounded veterans and their moms. “You’re going to see some real tough kids,” Marie added.
Marie and Rob may have a lot on their plates, but they said none of it could even be attempted if it weren’t for their good-hearted volunteers. “I have a lot of really good friends who worked really hard to make all of this happen,” Marie said. “I’d like to thank each and every one of them for their support.”
PHOTOS: Fred Lopez + Provided