A disabled Maine service Veteran, suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)and depression, conversed with his VA counselor who told him, “I’m writing you a prescription for VAST.” Although not a drug and not a remedy that required a pharmaceutical prescription, the counselor was quite serious, and explained to his client that Veterans Adaptive Sports & Training was probably the best treatment for his condition.
The VAST program operates at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester and offers free year-round sports and other activities for veterans with physical and visual disabilities, traumatic brain injury and PTSD.
VAST volunteer Homer McLemore of Windham shared the veteran/counselor story at a recent membership meeting of the American Legion Post 148. McLemore was there to support the center’s speaker of the evening, Kristina Sabateanski, founder and director of VAST.
Sabateanski told the gathering that research supports frequent physical activity for the disabled because it reduces stress, depression and secondary medical conditions, while increasing confidence, employment rates and quality of life.
Year-round games include hand and recumbent cycling, wheelchair basketball, floor hockey and tennis, archery and the increasingly popular disc golf. Over the recent winter, Sabateanski said participation also increased for cross country skiing/biathlon utilizing pellet rifles. About 30 paralympians show up at the outdoor center at Pineland every Wednesday from all over southern Maine. Five or six hail from Windham/Raymond; several more arrive by van from Togus VA Hospital in Augusta. The games and goodwill gatherings take place from 9 a.m. to noon.
“Pineland Farms takes care of our overhead,” explained Sabateanski. “They provide the outdoor center and all the equipment.” VAST is funded in part by a grant from the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs.
Volunteers, many of whom are veterans themselves, and students help run the program. Students are usually therapeutic recreation majors or taking elective classes like Facilitating Adaptive Outdoor Recreation at the University of Southern Maine.
“But it’s not all about us,” said Sabateanski, “the program is veterans helping veterans.”
In addition to physical well-being, the VAST program officials said the sense of camaraderie among fellow veterans plays a critical role in the overall goal to promote life-long good health. Down time between activities and a lunch break afford the participants the chance to network and to share common experiences. Sabateanski and McLemore’s observations suggest this collaborative time is as valuable as the sports play.
One spouse, referring to her veteran husband, said VAST brought out a new, more positive side of his personality. “I’ve never seen him act that way.”
“I really enjoyed Kristina’s history and passion about her VAST program,” said American Legion post commander Mel Greenier. “I am very happy there is a program such as this to assist our veterans. Her stories of various veterans who were doing something for the first time and taking a moment to feel happiness again was touching. I have had Post members tell me afterwards they want to be more involved and will see if they can volunteer to help Kristina’s program.”
Sabateanski said the program also offers multi-day sports camps. “There’s a transformation after four days (together) – the camaraderie of military people does something to take their minds off their disability.” She added, “That’s why VA counselors recommend the prescription (for VAST).”
Windham veteran Don Rogers said he gets involved regularly “…so I can get out. Otherwise I’d just sit around the house.” Also, he added, in reference to the USM volunteers, “There are pretty girls around, too.”
Sabateanski, herself an Army veteran and two time U.S. Olympic biathlon participant, founded VAST four years ago, inspired by recently injured veterans she encountered at a military sports camp.
“It’s never once felt like work,” she said. Unfortunately, “…they cut themselves off from the community. But here, there’s a new light in their eyes.”
Now in its fourth year, VAST operates 50 Wednesdays a year and includes two to four multi-day camps. A turkey hunt was organized last fall. Fly-fishing and fly-tying and a sailing camp are planned for this spring and summer. Participation is encouraged, regardless of skill level.
VAST has partnered with other community organizations across the country to develop the U.S. Paralympics, or Paralympic sports clubs. Estimates put the number of physically disabled Americans at about 21 million. For more information, visit www.pinelandfarms.org/vast.