In the two decades since he retired from the Army because of multiple sclerosis, Karl Smith has dealt with feelings of isolation.
For years, the 72-year-old Vietnam veteran from Falmouth didn’t get out of the house much, not knowing when his stamina and ability to walk would fail him. Last winter, he heard about Veterans Adaptive Sports & Training in New Gloucester, a program started by fellow Army veteran and Olympic biathlete Kristina Sabasteanski. Smith was quickly able to make connections with people and get outdoors for hikes, biking and archery – sometimes using a three-wheel walker and a recumbent bike.
In March, as the pandemic limited gatherings and forced Mainers to stay home, his connection with other veterans in the program only grew. Though he was unable to get together physically with other veterans for a while, he did not feel isolated.
Sabasteanski kept the group connected virtually, with weekly Zoom chats, which became lifelines for Smith and other vets.
“I think I spent more time talking to other veterans on Zoom than I had before,” Smith said. Talking to others was comfortable and helped Smith accept and “more easily live with” what he describes as a long-standing ambivalence toward his service in Vietnam.
Though Sabasteanski has run VAST for eight years, on the campus of the nonprofit Pineland Farms, the program has been especially important to its members during the pandemic. They kept connected virtually during the first few months of shutdowns, in March and April. When they resumed the program’s weekly activities – including archery, bocce and biking – it was while wearing masks and keeping 6 feet apart.
More than 160 veterans took part in the program this fiscal year, down from about 230 the year before, a drop caused by COVID-19, Sabasteanski says. The participants – who come when they can, or want – range in age from about 30 to 91. They include amputees, veterans dealing with brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, dementia and a host of other challenges. Activities include archery, cycling, fishing, orienteering, wheelchair basketball and tennis, bowling, disc golf and hiking trips. The program meets every Wednesday, and various other days during the week.
“It’s so important for them to be able to hang out with other veterans and share stories, and joy, doing something fun,” said Sabasteanski, 51. “When the pandemic hit, I thought it was really important to keep people connected.”
The program is funded by a Veterans Administration Adaptive Sports Grant, as well as individual donations, an Avangrid Foundation Grant and by Pineland Farms. The nonprofit Pineland Farms is a 5,000-acre working farm, with grounds that also house education and recreation programs, as well as several businesses.