Grant to help vets return to Big Island

Thanks in part to a grant from IBM, the dedication of volunteers and the love of a fallen brother, Minnesota veterans will continue to visit Big Island on Lake Minnetonka in 2017.

After a winter that left some doubt about the future of access to veterans who have been visiting the island for more than 90 years, plans and funding are secure for at least one more summer on the lake.

Gerry Falkowski and Dean Ascheman, both IBM retirees, applied for a $2,000 grant from IBM Corp to support the Veterans4Veterans organization in sponsoring and funding outings for veterans on Lake Minnetonka and specifically to tour Big Island and discuss its history this coming boating season.

Additionally, former Orono Mayor and Big Island advocate Gabriel Jabbour offered to match the IBM grant to ensure any veteran who wants to visit the lake and island may do so. Excursions were privately funded for more than 30 years.

“I worked on government contracts while at IBM,” Falkowski said. “This helped me to contact the right people and get this done for our veterans.”

For Falkowski, securing funding for the veterans is important. His brother, Ronald Falkowski was a veteran who served on the USS Midway from 1959 to 1962. Ronald passed away in 2012 after a courageous battle with Multiple Sclerosis, which may have been brought on from exposure to Agent Orange while serving his country.

“This is very important to me to honor Ron’s memory,” Falkowski said. “We will never know all the sacrifices our vets have made for us. This is a very small way of saying thank you to Ron and all of the other veterans.”

Funds will be used for the costs involved in these outings, including shore lunches, fuel and other expenses.

“It’s not cheap to bring these men over to the island, but it is well worth it,” said Falkowski. “Thanks to IBM and Mr. Jabbour we can continue to honor this tradition and give these soldiers a great day on the island.”

The relationship between Minnesota’s veterans and Big Island dates back more than 90 years when the island was home to The Big Island Veterans Camp. The camp closed in 2003 and proceeds from the 2006 sale to the City of Orono are used to fund veterans programs. A condition of the sale was that veteran’s would have access to the island in perpetuity.

Last winter, a new administration in Orono nearly removed the docks that provide access to the island. However, thanks for many vocal supporters and volunteers funds were discovered for maintenance and upkeep of the island’s docks. With access assured, Falkowski and Ascheman went to work to fund the visits.

“It will be a great summer on Big Island,” said Ascheman. “This was a team effort to ensure the rightful visitors of this island continue to have access not only this summer but for years to come.”