Tom Daley and Jerry Harkavy, left, who connected through the nonprofit Vet to Vet Maine, meet weekly and often go on walks at Scarborough Marsh. ‘We like to shoot the breeze. Tom does like to tell stories,’ Harkavy said. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

BIDDEFORD — Scarborough veterans are giving back to those with a similar history or story through Vet to Vet Maine, a program that founder Susan Gold said uses peer-to-peer connections to create a bond.

The nonprofit program, based out of Biddeford, serves southern Maine veterans who need companionship or friendship, said Gold. Out of Scarborough’s 1,384 veterans, there are currently five volunteers and nine visited veterans. There are 68 volunteer-and-veteran pairs throughout southern Maine.

Volunteer visitors, veterans themselves, are trained and matched with another veteran based on applications, she said.

“They visit the veterans in their homes, or in some cases in a facility, at least twice a month and they become friends, in some cases lifelong friends,” she said. “We’ve had a couple of them who sat at their bedside as they died. It’s a pretty powerful thing.”

At least twice a month, the visitors will meet up with their veteran and do activities together, like getting a coffee, seeing a movie, taking walks on the beach, or even helping their veteran get to doctor’s appointments, said Gold.

The program will even help some veterans utilize benefits that may have been overlooked before, she said.

“I was a VISTA volunteer at the Southern Maine Agency on Aging in 2013-14, and my project was to see what might help older veterans and maybe start a program,” said Gold. “This is what I came up with during my research and I found that in York and Cumberland County a quarter or fewer of veterans were applying for benefits and more than half were over 65 — many lived alone. When I talked to veterans, many said that they wouldn’t accept help from anyone who’s not a vet. So I thought a peer-to-peer would help. It’s worked exceptionally well and the veterans have been put in touch with many benefits, like Meals on Wheels, and have found better housing.”

Veterans can be more independent than most people, wanting to feel in control and disliking help from non-veteran civilians because in their minds, civilians don’t understand what veterans have been through, Gold said. The peer-to-peer program helps veterans accept help, if they need it, from someone of a similar background or experience.

Sam Kelley, a Scarborough resident and volunteer, said that he has been visiting his veteran counterpart for the past three years and has found the program to be the most fulfilling service he’s ever provided.

“What I’ve provided to (the veteran) is truly one of the best things I’ve ever done in my entire life,” he said. “It’s a wonderful organization.”

He applauded Gold for the work she has done, saying that it is “out of the goodness of her heart” that she volunteers so much of her time into Vet to Vet Maine.

While Gold said that she is not a veteran, she sees the effects that the work has on veteran volunteers like Kelley.

“I often hear them say, ‘I get more out of this than the person I’m visiting,'” she said. “I think they love the personal connection. It’s really developing a friendship. I think it’s a very rewarding thing to do. Many of them are retiring and they’re looking for something fulfilling to do and this certainly is fulfilling. They can see and feel that they’re making a difference.”

“I’ve been involved with a lot of nonprofits over the years but this one gives me great pleasure because I’m doing something for one particular person that’s extremely important and is a life-changing part of his life,” Kelley said.

Gold has gained tremendous respect for members of the military, whether or not they have been in combat, because signing up for the military is still putting one’s life at risk to defend others, she said.

“I think the rest of us civilians, maybe we don’t get it or understand that enough,” she said. “I think military people are the kind of people who want to serve, and many do a tremendous amount of volunteer service. We’ve never had a problem finding volunteers because there are so many people signing up to help fellow vets.”

She said the visited veterans often gain experiences through their volunteer companion that they would have otherwise missed out on.

“We found out this one veteran had never seen his wife’s grave because he was disabled and (his visitor) made a point of it to take him in his vehicle to see the grave,” said Gold.

Applications to apply as a volunteer veteran or to request a visitor can be found at vet2vetmaine.org. Gold said that if access to the internet is an issue, she can be reached at 571-5512 for a paper application. Volunteers go through a nine-hour training session and non-veteran volunteering positions are also available.

Gold said that Vet to Vet is planning on hosting a fundraiser on April 24 at Jones, Rich & Barnes Funeral Home in Portland from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., unless the public’s safety surrounding the Coronavirus remains a concern.

“We have a wine tasting and we always have a blast,” she said.

The program is also hoping to expand throughout the entire state of Maine, said Gold.

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