An enrichment project benefiting military veterans in York and Cumberland counties has received positive feedback from participants and a renewed call for more volunteers to sign up for training.

Since its February launch, the Veterans Helping Veterans project has paired 21 volunteer veterans with homebound elderly or disabled veterans to provide companionship for those who might otherwise spend their days in isolation.

Developed by Americorps VISTA volunteer Susan Gold for the Southern Maine Agency on Aging, the partnerships effectively fulfill the agency’s mission to provide outreach and resources that help older individuals remain at home for as long as possible.

“In addition to offering meaningful companionship, our volunteers are trained to see if our veterans have access to proper nutrition and assisting services that meet their needs, such as for medical care, transportation or supplemental nutrition programs like Meals on Wheels.” said Gold

The program is headed independently through SMAA but communicates with the Maine Veterans Administration about individuals who may benefit from the program.

Volunteers typically drop by for a visit a few times each month and touch base by telephone on weeks when a visit isn’t scheduled.

Program officials say they are happy not all the volunteers are younger veterans visiting seniors. Older veterans who are able are still stepping out to serve their country in meaningful ways.

Examples of the pairings include an 85 year-old female Vietnam veteran who regularly visits a 90-year-old woman who served in the Navy during World War II. The older woman, who is visually impaired, used to sit alone for hours. During their first visit, she shared about her military service for two hours.

Another Vet to Vet volunteer visits a Korean War veteran who has Parkinson’s disease. Though he cannot talk, the older vet communicates his pleasure at being visited by another veteran. “He sits up straighter during those visits,” said Gold.

Some of the volunteers like to get creative, including one man who learned that his veteran had served aboard a landing craft on D-Day. He put together a visual history of that event, including photographs. The old veteran was moved to tears of gratitude.

Not all participants focus on their military service. Some meet to talk about their love of books and others do woodworking projects or other things they have in common.

According to Amy Marcotte, a trainer and mental health professional for the program, “there is no cookie-cutter approach to these veteran-to-veteran visits. While some may want to reminisce about their military experience, others may not. And we need to respect that.”

In addition to teaching volunteers how to improve their listening skills and how to share their own stories, Marcotte and other program trainers provide practical advice for spotting shut-in veterans who may be struggling with depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Of course, volunteers are not there for a counseling session, just to lend and ear and some time.

“We train our volunteers to listen and observe,’ said Marcotte. “What are the things these older vets want to talk about? What are their interests? And, what are they proud of? Those are the discussions we want them to have.

“Soldiers tend to feel responsible to their country and one another, and programs like this are a really nice outlet to fulfill that,” said Marcotte. “I would definitely recommend it to anyone who is looking for meaningful service to their military brothers and sisters.”

New to the program are Staff Sgt. Brian Turner, 38, and Clarence “Mike” Hall, 93, both of Sanford. Though separated by a few generations, the men say they enjoy one another’s company and look forward to their visits.

Turner is a 10-year veteran who served in Afghanistan. Hall, a commissioned retired Coast Guard captain who also served in the Merchant Marines, fought in World War II and briefly returned to action, at age 70, during the beginning of the Gulf War in 1990-91.

Hall holds the distinction of being the first American soldier to board an enemy vessel (a German submarine during World War II) during wartime since the War of 1812.

These days, Turner appreciates hearing Hall’s stories during their visits.

“The first visit was a little awkward because we were strangers – but we found that bond that soldiers share,” said Turner. “These older veterans have seen a lot of things that my generation (of soldiers) did not experience. They have so much to share with us. And, it has been great to spend time with someone who helped to pave the way for us.”

The next round of training will be held from 5 to 8 p.m. Jan. 6, 8 and 13 at SMAA’s Scarborough offices. Volunteers will then be matched with veterans who share similar hobbies or interests and who live in close proximity to keep traveling distances down.

Volunteers are asked to commit to a minimum of two visits per month for one year. They will meet with program officials every few months to assess how things are going.

“I have been blown away by this program,” said Gold. “It has far exceeded my expectations. It is helping to forge friendships for both the visitor and the visited. One volunteer, a Vietnam vet, said that being with his World War II veteran helped him to recapture a sense of pride to be a veteran.”

While some of the older veterans may not be able to get out and around, it hasn’t stopped them from serving as mentors when the opportunity arises.

“One volunteer said he thought he’d be adopting an older veteran … but that vet ended up adopting him,” said Gold. “This is a chance for all participants to make a real difference in the life of a fellow veteran.”

To sign up or for more details, call Susan Gold at 396-6521 or email [email protected]