By Ken Bustin
Sometimes a story turns out to have much more to it than meets the eye. This one was like that. The invitation to a “ribbon-cutting” at the Mountain-Cajun Getaway in Circleville initially sounded like a quick trip to Circleville to snap a photo and write a caption of a paragraph or two announcing a new Bed & Breakfast. But it wasn’t. Instead, it was a very poignant reminder that reporters should always leave their preconceived notions back at the office when they set off to cover something.
Yes, there was a ribbon-cutting. Yes, the charming residence at 163 Upper Timber Ridge Road in Circleville looked for all the world like a folksy, Cajun-themed B&B. But once the ribbon had been cut and the photo snapped, it turned out that instead of the story being finished, it had only just begun.
Meet the new establishment’s gracious hosts, Melissa and Chris Grimes, whose initials (MCG) correspond perfectly with those of their new venture, Mountain-Cajun Getaway. We didn’t think to ask if that was actually planned or just a happy coincidence, but either way it makes both easier to remember.
Chris is originally from Circleville, and the residence-turned-getaway is his family homestead. Melissa is from southern Louisiana, eventually transplanted to West Virginia as a result of meeting and marrying Chris. But she didn’t travel light. She brought with her, as you would expect, a deep knowledge of and affection for all things Cajun, which is immediately evident from the first step inside the door, where one not only sees a variety of visual cues –items that relate to and illustrate Cajun culture – but is also instantly enticed by the intoxicating, savory aromas of Cajun cookery, in this case chicken and sausage gumbo simmering on the stove (which, as we learned shortly, tasted every bit as good as it smelled).
The idea for the getaway came about almost by happenstance. Although this was his family home, and he enjoyed coming home for visits, Chris said he really never expected to return to it to live full time. He’d told his dad as much years before.
But, now recently retired after 22 years in the military, 14 of which were spent as a member of Naval Special Warfare forces, Chris well understood the pressures and stresses on military personnel and their families, especially those whose duties had included combat. He was well aware of the grim statistics on divorce, mental illness and suicide for combat vets and their families. He wished there were ways to help mitigate those unhappy results.
While stationed at Virginia Beach, Virginia, for a number of years, he noticed that his periodic visits to the family homestead in Circleville – now his own after his parents had passed away – served the very therapeutic purpose of allowing him to decompress. He would return to home and duty in Virginia Beach much more centered and relaxed. This improvement in his state of mind did not go unnoticed by some of the fellow servicemen with whom he worked – and they often commented on it to him.
Eventually, some of them asked if they, too, might be allowed to have the opportunity to have a getaway to the homestead in Circleville? Before long, several of his co-workers and their families had availed themselves of the opportunity for a getaway to the relative quiet and tranquility of the hills of rural West Virginia. The results were always positive, and it started Melissa and Chris thinking about the possibility of expanding the opportunity beyond informal invitations to friends. Soon, the idea gelled and took shape, and Mountain-Cajun Getaway was born.
The resolve to expand and formalize their original effort into a full-time endeavor, with a clearly-focused and expanded mission, came when Chris retired, and he and Melissa actually made Circleville into their home full time.
This is neither the only, nor even the first, such outreach to vets. There are more than a few other such efforts, country-wide. But what does make it stand apart from the others is its emphasis on not only the vet, but their family.
“There are others who do things for veterans – for instance, taking them hunting,” said Chris. “But most of them do little or nothing for their families.” He said he knew from first-hand observation how the “operational tempo of training detachments, work ups, and ultimately deployments caused turmoil for even the strongest of families. I saw many strong families bend and unfortunately become broken due to the pressures of this stress.”
“We all think the service member is the one who endures all of the stress, fatigue, injuries and loneliness. But the family as a whole, missed anniversaries, birthdays, ball games, award programs, births and the day-to-day joys that being together as a family brings. So, when a military member serves, so does the entire family,” says Chris, adding, “My wife and I have been blessed during my active-duty military service in the U.S. Navy, to be a part of such a supportive community, one that has supplied in times of need, celebrated in times of happiness, consoled in times of grief, and stepped up in any way needed. Our community was our family.” They hope that their offering will be just like an extended family to their visitors.
Though she has come to love it here in West Virginia, Melissa admits that she often misses Louisiana, with all of its Cajun food, music and festivals. To maintain strong ties to her original home, she hopes to invite about 10 families from Louisiana to come as guests each year. And when the couple visits Louisiana, “we’ll be bringing them things from West Virginia – like maple moonshine,” Melissa says with a big grin.
Mountain-Cajun Getaway’s offerings will be “activities based off of family-building,” he declared. Those will “utilize nature’s therapy” – the relative beauty and quietude of the West Virginia hills — to the fullest extent possible, and also include such things as gardening and canning, fishing and hunting trips for all of the family members interested in going rock climbing, ziplining, train rides, scenic tours, swimming, golf, and in season skiing, tubing, snowshoeing and ice skating. They hope to be taking the kids on scavenger hunts, spending time working with them in a workshop, and doing maple sugaring and syrup-making.
“We want to utilize local resources,” says Chris.
They hope to act as a mentor to both veterans and their spouses and kids.
“We’ll take only one family at a time,” said Melissa, explaining that, with five bedrooms and bath on the second floor, a family can take over the whole floor and be together in a private space of their own, not unlike being at home. The five bedrooms, themed individually from history to Disney, provided ample room to accommodate even a large family.
And when it is time to eat, they can join their hosts on the first floor and often be treated to some of Melissa’s authentic Cajun cuisine.
In this kind of atmosphere, they hope that their guests will have a chance to “…repair family division, regain cooperative parenting skills, remove distractions, and refocus on the family unit.”
Mountain-Cajun Getaway also serves Gold Star families – those who have lost a loved one in the line of duty – whose need for emotional healing and repair of the remaining family unit is even more acute. Though many of the offerings are the same, Chris said they make an even stronger effort there to serve as mentors to the kids, offering “hands-on teaching of things that would have been taught by dads.”
Of course, all of this requires funding, and concurrent with making the mission a full-time pursuit, MCG recently attainted official Section 501(c)(3) non-profit status, making donations tax deductible. And what are their funding needs?
“Our funding needs are three-fold. First, creating onsite amenities for our guests. That includes strength and cardio equipment, bikes and helmets, kayaks and paddles, fishing equipment,” as well as a storage unit in which to house them. “Second, subsidizing the cost of offsite activities… so they can experience all that West Virginia has to offer. And finally, hosting these families with meals and facilities during their stay.”
The fundraising activities don’t just take place here. For example, there is a dinner auction planned – in Louisiana – on June 22nd. A fundraiser auction in yet another location fetched $4,000 for a vacation at the getaway home, and a repeat of it is planned. Also in the works, is an auction for a week during Maple Days next year.
The proceeds from the sale of t-shirts and koozies, available on their website, also go to help fund the effort.
And the Navy Special Ops are coming in April to do a site survey, with an eye toward officially sponsoring family getaways as support and therapy for families. Their mission, clearly, is not just to provide a vacation.
Several local businesses have partnered with or supported MCG, as well. Those include a fish hatchery, a plant nursery and several restaurants. They also enjoy the support of the chamber of commerce, the Pendleton County Historical Society and Future Generations University. Local and national veterans’ organizations and military family service centers help to identify deserving families to benefit from the experience.
Do these getaways have a positive impact on families?
Survey says… they do. MCG conducts “here-and-now” surveys with their guests, as well as follow-up surveys, and the results have been very encouraging.
“But,” says Chris, “the ultimate measure of our impact will be the restoration and strengthening of the families our veterans fought so hard to keep safe and find their way home to.”