Nancy Tarpein wasn't accustomed to chivalry. As a senior living in a vast stretch of singlewide mobile homes that from the sky look like scattered gum sticks near the base of the Colorado Rocky Mountains, she was used to being overlooked in an American culture that celebrates wealth and youth. Seventy-three years old and widowed, with a monthly $776 Social Security check to sustain her and her dog on the outskirts of Denver, she certainly never expected to be indulged by a 26-year-old athlete who once modeled for Abercrombie & Fitch. But on Oct. 14, 2008, Jeremy Bloom swept Tarpein away. "He makes you feel like you amount to something," she says.
On that fall day Bloom did not suddenly appear as a three-time freestyle skiing world champion or a two-time U.S. Olympian or a University of Colorado football star or a Philadelphia Eagles draft pick or a cover boy. He was the doting caretaker of a wish. A nervous rookie at this white knight's occupation, Bloom had just founded Wish of a Lifetime, a nonprofit dedicated to fulfilling the dreams of low-income seniors. Tending to the needs of the aging poor is a surprising choice of focus for an athlete, whose kind tend to support charities related to children—a noble, unassailable and apolitical pick. Bloom went unconventional with a cause borne of his experience traveling the world, visiting countries where elders are revered. He lauds his own grandparents' role in his life. Bloom's grandfather was his first ski instructor; his grandmother, whom he refers to as his "second mother," shuttled him to every karate lesson.
"I just believe that too often in our society, seniors are an afterthought," says Bloom. "Our focus is to effect change in the way we look at aging." He abandoned a potential third Olympic run, at the 2010 Vancouver Games, when he retired from the U.S. Ski team in November to throw himself into his Denver-based foundation, which will start granting wishes in all 50 states on Jan. 1. Bloom exited competitive sports fulfilled, saying he didn't want to "fake his passion" after winning two World Cup season titles during a 12-year skiing career and experiencing NFL life for three seasons. "My [athletic] goals required a tremendous amount of selfishness on my part," says Bloom. "I spent more than a dozen years living a life about me. I thought it was time to think about others."
Tarpein was one of Bloom's first grantees. They met in 2008, during Tarpein's 13th year as a foster grandparent at an elementary school, where she helped tutor five-year-olds. "It gives me a purpose," she says. Tarpein recalls coaxing a child with learning disabilities to recite the alphabet by promising her a doll. The child delivered a flawless rendition of the ABCs. Tarpein fixed up an old doll she had at home. "I found out later that doll was worth $400," she says with a laugh. "Who knew? But that little girl earned it." Tarpein was among a group of foster grandparents that filled out a survey used by Wish of a Lifetime. One question read: Where would you go if you could go anywhere in the world? Tarpein's response: to Arizona, to see her daughter, Lucille, who had been diagnosed with cancer. The trip, a 15-hour car ride, was too far for Tarpein, and plane fare was too expensive. "We talk on the phone, but I hadn't seen her in five years," says Tarpein. "She's hanging in there right now. But a year ago she was in so much pain and her morale was so low that I wasn't sure if I'd see her before I lost her." Without medical insurance, Lucille has lacked access to the kind of intensive treatment that might extend her life.
December 28, 2009
"I just couldn't imagine the helplessness of a parent not being able to see their child in that kind of circumstance," Bloom says. One of his foundation workers drove Tarpein to the Denver airport and accompanied her on the flight to Arizona. Bloom met her at the Phoenix airport, carried her bags to a rental car, checked her into a nice hotel and then drove her to the café where Lucille waits tables. "I didn't recognize her," Tarpein says. "She looked so much older, kind of stooped and swollen. And yet she was working." Tarpein and Bloom sat in Lucille's section. They talked and ate, and when the bill came, Bloom picked it up and left a tip: $100. "Made my daughter's day," Tarpein says. Over two more days Tarpein hugged her daughter and held her hand.
Bloom made this reconnection a reality. He has fulfilled the wishes of 10 seniors in the past 15 months. Some want to skydive. Whatever they desire, he's the bucket-list facilitator. Bloom is an advocate at heart, having once taken the NCAA to court when it ruled him ineligible to play football because he, like many other Olympians, relied on endorsements to support his skiing career. "It's all about principles," says Bloom, who lost his case. "I love what I'm doing now, meeting incredible seniors, hearing their stories." Tarpein's tale moved Bloom. As she says in old-school lingo, "I think Jeremy is the cat's meow." With his glossy Hollywood looks, Bloom slips easily into the template of what is coveted in society. That's not what he values, though. He sees the neglected elderly—think of that old doll Tarpein had in storage—and understands what they're worth.
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Tending to the aging poor is a surprising choice of focus for an athlete. Through his Wish of a Lifetime, Bloom is fulfilling their dreams.