Walt and Judy Van Benthuysen
This story appears in the December 2012 edition of Desert Magazine
By Denise Goolsby
Photos Crystal Chatham
Walt and Judy Van Benthuysen sit on a patio overlooking the Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course at Toscana Country Club in Indian Wells. Two weeks earlier a major fundraiser was held there for American Friends of Our Armed Forces, a charitable organization the couple founded in 2005.
It’s been a whirlwind of activity for this dedicated duo, whose passion for helping military families has sparked a similar enthusiasm―expressed by a generous outpouring of time and money―from the community.
Since its inception seven years ago, AFAF has provided more than $1.2 million in support of America’s troops and their families. The money, distributed through grants, goes to support programs designed to help meet the financial, social and emotional needs of the country’s military. Key support goes to programs at two of the valley’s closest military bases: Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms and Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in San Diego.
The Van Benthuysens, who live part of the year in their Toscana home and the balance in Chicago, spend much of their free time organizing and arranging the annual AFAF golf tournament and other fundraisers held during the year.
The idea to start AFAR began in December 2004 when the Van Benthuysens attended a Toys for Tots dinner at The Lakes Country Club in Palm Desert, their previous desert home. Fellow members brought hundreds of toys to the gathering; four young Marines were there to pick up those toys and take them back to the base.
“They didn’t look like they had plans for dinner or were sitting with anyone,” Walt recalls, “so I just walked up and said, ‘Why don’t you come over and join us?’” The couple was sitting with a large group, and during the course of dinner, the subject of golf came up. So they invited the Marines to come back to play golf. The Marines returned the favor and invited their hosts to the base for a golf outing.
Soon after, the Van Benthuysens arranged a dinner with around 40 couples, including the Marines from the base, accompanied by their wives or sweethearts. After the meal was finished, the hosts asked all the Marines to stand up, give their name, rank, how long they’d been in the military, and anything they wanted to tell
“We got to almost the last guy,” Judy recalls, “and he said he’d just gotten his orders and was being deployed that weekend. He added, ‘This is what we train for.’ He was excited to go. That’s when his wife―she didn’t look to be more than 18―got up and excused herself because she was crying. So I really felt so sad because after what happened with Vietnam, I said ‘We don’t want this to happen again.’”
Judy then raised her hand and asked the Marines what the community could do to show their support. “We wanted the guys and girls who are over there to know that they have people back here who are praying for them, who are caring about their families,” she explains. “We wanted to make sure they knew there are people here they could depend on.”
What started as a simple impulse quickly gathered momentum. “I just figured our group was going to make up a box and ship it, and that would be the end of that. But it ended up with people handing me $100 bills, and the next thing you know, I had $2,500.”
The Marine’s wife who broke down during the dinner e-mailed Judy and Walt a list of items the men would need during their deployment. “Then we went shopping,” Judy says. “You know how hard it is to spend $2,500 at Costco? We’re buying beef jerky, eye drops, Handi Wipes. It ended up that my whole garage was full,” she says laughing at the memory. “We had the Marines come down, and it was like a bucket brigade putting everything out for them.”
At that point, the couple recognized that they had tapped into something, “so that summer,” says Walt, “we went back to Chicago and I told Judy, ‘You know, that was the greatest feeling, being able to help, and we ought to really organize this and do it fulltime.’”
Friends at a Chicago law firm set them up as a 501(c) 3 charity. “We came back and we started formally in the fall,” he says. “We formed a board of directors. We have seven directors. Five have been directors from the start. There’s a real long-term commitment.”
The charity is all-volunteer. There are no paid employees. On and off, they have about 100 volunteers working throughout the year. “We started out that first year cautiously and set an objective to raise $25,000 and we were shocked, I mean people opened up their hearts,” Walt says. “The first year we raised $70,000. It just went way past anything we ever dreamed.” The next year, AFAF raised more than $100,000, then $150,000 and $200,000 in each of the next two years. “We now average between $200,000 and $250,000 each year,” he adds.
Besides the major fundraiser in April at Toscana Country Club, which hosted 128 players, including Marines from the local bases this year, AFAF also organizes a couple of events that promote greater visibility. “They’re designed to get people in the valley to be more aware of the needs of the military,” he explains.
Five years ago the group started the “Adopt a Marine for Thanksgiving” program. By November 2011, AFAF had partnered with several other local country clubs and was able to host about 300 Marines for the holiday. Additionally, Walt arranged with Cardiff Limousine & Transportation to charter seven busses that were dispatched early Thanksgiving morning to Twentynine Palms. The Marines were picked up and delivered to families at Toscana, Indian Ridge, The Hideaway, Rancho La Quinta, The Vintage Club, The Lakes, and The Springs.
The Marines were treated to meals at the country clubs or at their hosts’ homes, where they played in the pool, watched football games and enjoyed home-cooked Thanksgiving dinners.
At one time or another during the year, the Van Benthuysens acknowledge that AFAF touches some 50,000 military families. AFAF sponsors the youth sports program at Twentynine Palms where 1,800 kids are able to participate at half-price. “When we started, there were only about 400 or 500 kids in the program because the parents could afford to send only one or two kids, or could only pay for one sport,” Judy explains. There are now 20 different sports and activities offered at the base.
“That was one of our first efforts and it’s grown dramatically,” Walt adds. “The manager of the program just needed some support.”
More than enough to live for
The charity keeps the couple, who will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in March, on the go for much of the year. “It goes in waves,” Walt says. “Three months leading up to the golf tournament, it’s pretty much full time. Then you might get a few weeks’ break. Then you get to the next event. A month or two before the Adopt a Marine for Thanksgiving program starts, it’s pretty busy.” At that point, the Van Benthuysens are working from Chicago, confirming host homes for the Thanksgiving meal, arranging the bus transfers, all before returning on November 1 when they finalize everything.
Having four children and 10 grandchildren, the couple is grateful for the opportunity to touch the lives of those living far from their families. A few weeks before this summer’s golf tournament, the Van Benthuysens attended a church service where a visiting pastor’s words hit home. “He said, ‘Most people have enough to live on, but not enough to live for,’” Walt says. “It was very prophetic, because, for at least parts of the year, we sort of live for these Marines. It’s been more rewarding than you can ever imagine.”
American Friends of Our Armed Forces. AFAF’s 3rd annual Military Appreciation Golf Tournament will take place at The Classic Club on November 22. AFAF’s 6th annual Adopt a Marine for Thanksgiving program is also on November 22. AFAF’s 9th annual Golf Classic is scheduled for April 22, 2013 at Toscana Country Club. (760) 340-0392; afafusa.com.