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May 2, 2018

Travis Mills Foundation renovation of Elizabeth Arden estate continues

Photo / Maureen Milliken
Photo / Maureen Milliken
There is a lot of activity at the Travis Mills Retreat in Rome, which will open for its second season in June. The former Elizabeth Arden spa and estate has undergone a huge makeover since it was bought by the Travis Mills Foundation in 2015. This is the rear of the property, where rooms for veterans and their families open up to the back yard.

ROME — On a sunny day recently there was still a little Christmas garland around a light pole on the back patio of the Travis Mills Foundation Retreat, left over from December, when veterans and their families who had been displaced by hurricanes visited.

The retreat, entering its second year, hadn't planned to have winter guests, but it was a good test run for the next phase of the retreat for veterans who have been disabled in combat, said Brandy Cain, executive director.

"There were vet families in need and we wanted to see how we did in winter," she said.

If all goes well, the program that began last summer and hosted 84 families by the year's end will eventually expand to 40 weeks a year.

Cain said the expansion to four seasons is in the planning stages at the former Elizabeth Arden estate and spa that overlooks Long Pond in the Belgrade Lakes region.

It's been fast road to success since the Travis Mills Foundation bought the 11,000-square-foot house on 17 acres in 2015.

The $2.5 million renovation project took the building down to the studs, as well as replaced the foundation and added a basement, rewired the building and added new plumbing and heating and fixed up outbuildings.

Everything had to be redone to accommodate veterans who may be in wheelchairs or have other mobility issues, as well as their families.

A place for families

Photo / Maureen Milliken
Photo / Maureen Milliken
The Travis Mills Foundation veterans retreat in Rome opened last year after a $2.5 million renovation project.

The two-story house that the beauty products magnate built in the 1920s tops an expansive lawn that slopes down to Castle Island Road and Long Pond. Arden used to entertain friends like Mamie Eisenhower and Judy Garland in the Maine Chance Spa's heyday.

She sold it in 1970 to a family who used it as a summer home, but it became too much for them to maintain and had fallen into disrepair.

When the former Arden estate went up for sale in 2015 for $756,000, it had seen better days.

Mills, who lost his arms and legs in an explosion while serving in Afghanistan in 2012, and had started a foundation to help combat-injured veterans in 2013, meanwhile, wanted to open a retreat.

It was important to Mills, Cain said, that the retreat be a place where a veteran and his or her family could be together.

"He realized it was important to not just support the veteran, but to support the family, too," she said. During Mills' rehabilitation, he had a major breakthrough when he was able to ride a mountain bike, but his wife and daughter, a big source of support for him, weren't there to see it.

Mills wanted the retreat to be a place where veterans and their families could be together.

When the foundation came up with the plan for the retreat, they wanted two proofs of concept: that the public would support it, and that veterans would come.

Veterans were behind the idea from the beginning, Cain said. Support grew as the public realized that Mills was determined to make it happen.

The retreat has eight suite-style rooms that can accommodate eight families at a time and a total of 35 people a week, all free of charge.

Last year, the foundation wanted to make sure it would all work. Those who came were by invitation, said Kelly McGaughey, program director.

"We wanted to make sure we could meet the needs of everyone who came," she said.

They had guests give feedback about the accommodations.

"They weren't afraid to say something," if there was something they thought could be improved on, Cain said.

As Cain and McGaughey sat in the resort's comfortable living room and workers buzzed around the house preparing it for opening, they said they learned a lot last year about small detail things that had been overlooked. For instance, nobody had thought about diaper disposal. The rooms now have diaper genies.

This year the retreat plans to accommodate 128 families over 16 weeks.

Comfortable and relaxing

Photo / Maureen Milliken
Photo / Maureen Milliken
A ropes course at the Mills retreat was a surprise donation. The house and Long Pond can be seen in the background.

Arden and her friends wouldn't recognize the interior of the former estate. The decorating is functional, but also comfortable and pleasant — muted blues, grays and tans.

Doors are wide enough for wheelchairs, and showers are roll-in. Sinks are open underneath to accommodate wheelchairs as well.

The large commercial kitchen gleams next to a family-style dining room with big tables and picture windows that look across the lawn to Long Pond.

Furniture, donated by Wayfair, is about accessibility, McGaughey said. Chairs, for instance, all have arms for easier in and out, something Mills had noted was necessary.

Mirrors tilt, so someone in a wheelchair can adjust it for use.

The new basement has a large playroom for kids, a movie theater with couches and bean bag chairs, created with support from Bose and Lovesac.

The comfortable library full of books, which opens out onto the back patio, is full of books donated by the Barbara Bush Foundation.

"Barbara Bush loved Travis," Cain said.

The ambience is non-clinical on purpose, she said. It's a place for veterans and their families to relax, not a hospital.

Programming includes things like pottery, yoga and archery, taught by volunteers.

One big surprise last year was a rope course donated by Mike Rowe of the reality show "Returning the Favor."

There is also 88 feet of waterfront across Castle Island Road, and a boathouse, which used to be Arden's lakeside bowling alley.

The boathouse, used for events and relaxation, was renovated by the "Maine Cabin Masters" TV show, and has a commercial-grade deck that can hold up to 40 people and is used for barbecues and other events.

It and the docks are accessible by a ramp made of composites. Railings are made with cable, so that those in wheelchairs can still see the lake.

There is also a floating dock and kayaks.

Every family who stays gets a golf cart to travel around the acreage in.

'The only one who looks like you'

Photo / Maureen MIlliken
Photo / Maureen MIlliken
Everything at the Mills retreat is designed for those in wheelchairs, like this see-through rail on the boathouse deck.

Goals for the future are to increase the number of rooms in the house, so families can spread out more and be more comfortable. The number of families staying at a time wouldn't increase, Cain said.

The foundation also hopes to build a 10,000-square-foot multi-purpose building, as well as a wellness center that would include an indoor pool.

The foundation's goal for those who come to the retreat are that they increase their confidence and relax.

Cain said that those who don't have the challenges that the veterans do may not realize how limiting a lot of recreational activities can be.

"When you can't run and do things with your kids, that can be a rough mindset to be in," she said. The retreat provides the opportunity for the families to do things together.

She said it's also a way to provide a supportive community for the veterans that understands what they are going through.

"If you're the only one who looks like you in your town, it can be intimidating," she said.

The Belgrade Lakes region and beyond has been supportive. The retreat employs five people full-time and six more seasonally, but there is also an army of volunteers who help with everything from babysitting to programming.

Cain said a lot of the volunteers are veterans, and many are also school teachers who want to do something productive with their summer.

Businesses have also stepped up. Besides Wayfair, donations and labor have also come from places like Hancock Lumber, Coastal Landscaping, Maine Landscaping and Nursery and many more.

"It's humbling to see what people are will to give," McGaughey said.

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