Helping People Heal in the Caribbean

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Veterans on Maho Bay beach.

Deborah Bernstein and Scott Wahlen aren’t your average St. John villa owners.

They aren’t making money. In fact, they are losing it. But while their wallets may not be brimming with cash, their hearts are overflowing with generosity.

For every five vacations booked at their Gift Hill villa, the Boston couple donates a week long all-inclusive vacation and airfare for wounded veterans or families of fallen firefighters.

“This is a big part of our life,” Bernstein said. “Every body gives in their own way, and this is the way that we do it.”
Bernstein, a yoga instructor, and Wahlen, a captain in the Boston Fire Department and former U.S. Marine, first came to St. John five years ago.

Hooked On St. John and Each Other
It seems their love for St. John evolved about the same time as their romance. It was where they took their first trip as a couple and they have been hooked — on the island and each other — ever since.

“What attracted us to St. John is that we both like to hike, we love the outdoors, we love to get some exercise,” Bernstein said, recalling how they used her Starwood points she had accumulated from her former days working in the corporate world to stay at the Westin Resort and Villas. “But we didn’t spend much time there at all.”

“We just devoured the island and did two or three hikes and a few snorkels every single day,” Bernstein continued. “It took three visits and we were hooked. We love that St. John is preserved, we love the fact that it is a national park and has so many beaches, each with its own personality.”

But it was a touching experience a few years ago which made them want to share the beauty of St. John with others who were in real need of a vacation.

Wahlen organized an initiative to support the wounded troops recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He collected hundreds of t-shirts and gifts from the Boston Fire Department, Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots and he and Bernsteinpersonally visited every veteran at the facility.

Disabled Veterans
“It moved both of us,” Bernstein said of the experience. “These were young kids, on top of the world a few months ago, and now they have these physical disabilities to deal with for the rest of their lives.”

When the couple went back to St. John a few weeks later, they couldn’t help but think of the veterans they had met.

“It just didn’t feel right that we were here and they were there in the hospital,” Bernstein said. “We wanted to do more than just bring them t-shirts — we wanted to bring them to St. John.”

Wahlen wanted to share all the beauty and outdoor activities St. John encapsulates with the young veterans, he explained.
“These guys may be disabled but they are not out of commission,” Wahlen said. “These guys are young — they are still filled with piss and vinegar.”

The couple purchased Florian Villa in 2007 as a way to continue their mission work.

Realizing A Dream
“We cashed in our 401Ks, we sold Deb’s condo and car, we sold all our IRAs and we used every nickel of our savings,” Wahlen said. “Even though we are in debt, it is worth it — this is our time to make our stamp on life and do something good.”

After 15 years working as a management consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers and running an international corporate finance department, Bernstein left the corporate world to teach yoga and founded the Roslindale Yoga Studio in Boston. But recently, she sold the studio to help support their mission on St. John.

“I am now full time into the villa business on St. John,” Bernstein said, admitting that owning a villa is a lot of work. “It’s all been within a year and a half so we are still really new at it.”

Everything about Florian Villa — even its name — reflects a cause the couple holds near and dear to their hearts.

Patron Saint of Firefighters
“Saint Florian is the patron saint who protects firefighters and their families so we thought it was fitting to name the villa after something dear to us,” Bernstein said.

Wahlen feels especially connected to the families of the victims of 9/11 after being involved in the rescue and cleanup efforts of the tragedy, he explained.

“Looking back at it, I think everybody working at 9/11 was in a fog,” Wahlen said. “It really hit me afterward, when I was in the honor guard and asked to participate in the funerals. I went to about 100 funerals — funeral after funeral after funeral — it didn’t end.”

“That is when I realized that this is a historic moment for our nation,” Wahlen continued.

In addition to opening their home to disabled veterans, Wahlen and Bernstein also invite the families of fallen firefighters throughout the country.

“Whenever we hear about these families, we send them a card offering them to stay at the villa or inviting them to our yoga retreats — just to have a chance to get away from it all,” Bernstein said.

Yoga Retreats
The owners lead yoga retreats at the villa to allow others to experience the seclusion and natural beauty of St. John. Bernstein’s teaching is an eclectic mix of vinyasa and mindfulness practice, inspired by viniyoga and Kundalini.

Wahlen, who has hiked Mt. Kenya and Mt. Kilimanjaro, scuba dived the Great Barrier Reef and explored the caves of Cappadocia, brings an adventurous side to it all — incorporating hiking, kayaking, snorkeling and scuba into adventure yoga retreats.

Bernstein and Wahlen have recently expanded their charitable wings to include a group called Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba (SUDS), which helps wounded soldiers reacclimate with their bodies to complete a scuba diving certification. In March, they will be hosting a SUDS group at their villa.

“We are really looking forward to the first week in March when we will host the SUDS group for a week,” Bernstein said. “I will cook for them, we will drive them around, whatever they need — we are going to wait on them hand and foot.”

Generous Support
The couple gives credit to the many generous people who have helped make these efforts possible. Several of Wahlen’s co-workers at the Boston Fire Department have offered to help with the effort, and the couple has even secured a $6,000 grant to cover travel expenses of transporting the wounded veterans to St. John.

“It is just nice to know that you are allowing people to do something they wouldn’t get to do otherwise — to know that you are introducing them to a new place on the planet where they wouldn’t have necessarily visited on their own,” Bernstein said.

Both Bernstein and Wahlen are clear on one fact: they do not run their mission as a business. It isn’t a non-profit organization, but rather a job with non-financial rewards.

Not About Money
“It feels good even when we are feeling the financial stresses from it,” Bernstein said. “If we were doing this just as a business, it would not be worth it. We lose money.”

“At this point, we are paying out of our pockets,” she said.

Instead, Bernstein and Wahlen claim the positive feedback from the people they have invited to stay at Florian Villa is all the compensation they need.

“It is a real getaway — people who come here are really struck by the wilderness, the peace and quiet,” Bernstein said. “You can really just feel that here from Gift Hill — it is just a nice way for these people to enjoy themselves.”