A new program, set to begin in June, is recruiting volunteers for a support network serving military veterans.
The Veterans Helping Veterans project seeks to pair younger vets with older ones, or with those who are disabled or housebound, for home visits in Cumberland and York counties.
Offered through the Southern Maine Agency on Aging and directed by an Americorps VISTA volunteer, the program is an extension of the agency’s mission to provide outreach and resources to help older people live independently at home for as long as they can.
Susan Gold, the VISTA program coordinator, said, “A goal of this program is to promote healthy interaction among veterans who could benefit from regular visits with people they have something in common with. Shared experiences are the strength of any peer group, as (peers) are the only ones who can truly relate to where we are coming from.”
According to Gold, of the nearly 135,118 veterans living in Maine, 77,545 of them are age 60 and older and more than one third of them live in York and Cumberland counties.
Gold hopes to match veteran companions based on similar combat experiences and how far apart they live, when possible.
Another goal of the program is for volunteers to assess the needs of the veterans they are visiting, to determine if they are in good health, getting enough to eat and aware of services and resources available to them.
“That information helps us get veterans connected to programs that may help them, like the Meals on Wheels (food delivery service),” said Gold.
Gold, of Saco, is volunteering for one year with VISTA, a federal agency that acts as a domestic version of the Peace Corps to help address poverty, literacy and health initiatives at the community level.
VISTA volunteers commit to a year of service and receive a meager stipend to live on that is deliberately set as a poverty wage so that workers are more able to empathize with the economic challenges of the populations they are serving.
Nonprofits, like the Southern Maine Agency on Aging, apply to receive assistance from VISTA volunteers in the same way they would apply for grant money.
Gold said another benefit of the program is the potential for older veterans to also help the volunteer vets who come to visit them.
“A lot of these young vets are coming home from military service and have no one they can talk to about what they experienced,” said Gold. “So this is an opportunity for older vets to serve as mentors.”
Gold has already begun meeting with area veterans groups to launch the program and a team is planning the training sessions.
The program will begin by serving just 20 veterans, but Gold hopes to expand that number in the coming months.
“Right now, we are looking for younger veterans who can volunteer to befriend an older vet for at least two visits each month, ideally with phone contact in between visits,” said Gold, who emphasized that the visits are strictly for relationship building, not home health care work.
And older veteran volunteers who are able to commute to visits on their own are invited to serve as companions, too.
Training is tentatively set to begin the second week of May, with volunteer applications due to be submitted by mid-April.
The 12-hour training sessions will meet over a three-day period, with classes running four hours each. A background check will be required and volunteers who choose to continue on after the first year will take a shorter refresher course to upgrade their skills.
“The initial training is fairly rigorous,” said Gold. “We teach (volunteers) how to communicate effectively and bond with older vets as well as how to assess their condition. These young vets can also serve as our eyes to ensure older veterans are getting connected with the resources available to them. We are also looking into offering a support group for the volunteers.”
A $25 sign-up fee covers the cost of class materials and background checks.
“Our ultimate goal is to see bonds forged that are lifelong,” said Gold. “We know that won’t happen every time, but we hope it can happen.”
“We also encourage people to contact us if they know of a vet out there who could benefit from companionship but are hesitant to ask for help.”
Deborah Sayer can be contacted at 791-6308 or at: