Program says 'thank you' to military families with free camping trips

- Whether it's kicking back in a hammock or hitting a Twins' game, the Palmer family makes the most of their summer vacation—but Jeannie Palmer says the best part of the season is camping out with other military families who know what her family has been through. 

For one week a year, Camp Gratitude rents 12 cabins at the veterans' camp in Marine on St. Croix and gives them to military families free of charge.

"It's fun, it's exciting, it's adventurous for the kids," Palmer said. "It's emotional, but most of all it's healing."

The founder of the program says it's a simple way to thank the veterans for their service, as well as give them a chance to decompress and reconnect with loved ones after deployment. In fact, there's even a licensed therapist on hand if any of the campers want one.

"I wanted to address the the unacceptable divorce and an suicide rate among our kids who are coming home," said Bill Hottel, the camp's founder.. 

Now, in addition to the location at Marine on St. Croix, Camp Gratitude is setting up shop at a ranch near Rochester and will have room there for another 24 families. 

Camp organizers say it's a way to reach more military families both in Minnesota and across the country.

"This year we've got requests from Connecticut, Vermont, Florida, Indiana, Oklahoma, Ohio, Missouri, Wisconsin, North Dakota and New Mexico," Hottel said. "On our application we ask how they heard about us, and it's either word of mouth or the internet. So people are going back to their communities and talking about us."

A week at the camp costs roughly $1,800 per family and is funded solely through private donations. It's a sum not lost on the Palmer family, who say that if it weren't for Camp Gratitude they might not be able to afford a family vacation at all.

For more information on Camp Gratitude, click here.

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