Chances are you've probably never been to the quiet, quaint village of Jackson, New Hampshire (population 835). This small town borders nearly 750,000 acres of the White Mountain National Forest, just south of Mt. Washington and the Presidential mountain range. Jackson is a place where you won't find any name-brand, chain hotels or restaurants. There's a small historic library, a town hall and a white steepled church. The main access to the village is through a historical covered bridge built in 1876 that crosses the nationally preserved Wildcat River.
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But this week, something remarkable is happening there, as this small New England community becomes a travel capital of sorts, and a beacon of light — a model for other destinations to follow.
The entire village is opening its doors, bedrooms, and restaurants to welcome guests living with multiple sclerosis to enjoy a special free week of relaxation, rest, workshops, networking and socialization. More than 10 country inns, bed and breakfasts and grand hotels will host individuals living with multiple sclerosis.
Our story starts in 2000, when Don and Joyce Bilger decided to quit the high-tension, fast paced corporate life and move to small town America to pursue their dream of running a small Bed and Breakfast. And they restored the Inn at Jackson.
The idea that prompted the abrupt shift in lifestyle was that Joyce had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and their lives changed forever. As the couple learned more about the crippling disease, they realized how many other people were in similar situations, and needed information and support.
Last year, they opened their entire B&B to welcome folks with MS, to attend a series of workshops, learn, and yes, even relax. The concept was simple and powerful: There are no charges for lodging, breakfast, or workshops. Participants are welcome to make a donation to the National MS Society in lieu of payment for the lodging and workshops, but this is not required.
The idea was so was so popular the inn was soon filled. And a random drawing was held to determine who could be accommodated. Due to the overwhelming response to the event, other inns in Jackson were inspired to step forward to help meet the high demand for lodging. Soon the entire village became involved, with local specialty shops offering discounts to MS participants and dining establishments hosting benefit dinners for the National MS Society.
The Bilger’s dream has now turned into a town’s mission to help those living with multiple sclerosis.
“We wanted to give something back,” Don Bilger says. “And we figured, why not open the inn to others who had been diagnosed with MS and just needed a break?”
Before long, others in town climbed on board. Soon, more than 45 rooms were being offered free to MS patients. Then came the challenge of scheduling the programs, which included morning seminars, discussion groups, workshops, professional medical speakers.
This year, 90 rooms throughout the village are being made available, and the local restaurants of Jackson have thrown open their doors as well. Workshop topics include "Understanding Depression and MS," "Complementary and Alternative Medicine" and Financial Planning," all subjects of vital interest to so many MS patients.
The Jackson village program has quickly become a model for other destinations and resorts to follow. And, more than anything else, it has united an entire community in a single cause, and a great display of hospitality — a travel story with a purpose that goes way beyond simply visiting a destination.
"We now understand what it means to deal with this disease, and we feel as if we've got a little paradise up here to share," says Don. “I was —and continue to be — amazed at the outpouring of support for this,” he says. “And I hope we can be the source of inspiring others across the country to do the same. Doing good just feels good, and we're glad to make life a little brighter for people who certainly deserve a break."
One additional note: the Bilgers and the village of Jackson aren’t the only ones giving deserving folks a much needed break. In Glenwood Springs, Colorado, you’ll find Bob Johnson, a real estate broker who also runs Operation Vacation, which awards three day weekend getaways to soldiers returning from — or in the midst of — tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan. Once again, the resort town came together to put these special trips together.
Peter Greenberg is TODAY's travel editor. His column appears weekly on TODAYshow.com. Visit his Web site at PeterGreenberg.com.