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USM students helping Olympian connect Maine veterans with the community

Jaden Colby cradled a candlepin bowling ball in her hand, glanced to her right and said, “Ready. Set. Go!”

 As the University of Southern Maine student rolled her ball onto the hardwood lane, 81-year-old Carmine Melito lowered his arm and rolled his own ball past the wheels on his chair. The ball meandered before it passed the standing pins and disappeared with a thunk.

Melito grinned. Despite the winter season, its icy temperatures and his wheelchair, he managed to leave his home a few miles away, and he played.

To him, to Colby and to Kristina Sabasteanski — the USM alumna and former Olympic athlete who began this program  — having a few moments of play is what their work is all about.

“Time after time, people tell me ‘You’ve changed my life,’” Sabasteanski said. “But we’re all a team. And we all help each other.”

In 2012, the year she graduated from USM’s Occupational Therapy program, Sabasteanski created VAST — Veterans Adaptive Sports & Training. Using grant money from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, she partnered with Pineland Farms in New Gloucester, Maine to offer veterans a free place to get together with the equipment and training to try several sports, from cross-country skiing and snowshoeing to archery, target shooting, basketball, tennis and disc golf.

 It’s the perfect job for Sabasteanski, who served for 10 years in the Army National Guard and competed in the Biathlon in two Olympic games: in Nagano, Japan in 1998 and in Salt Lake City in 2002. During the latter games’ opening ceremonies, she was one of eight Olympians to carry a special World Trade Center flag commemorating the 9/11 attacks of the previous year.

VAST grew from her desire to help Maine veterans, who have few places to relax with other veterans. And for those with the need for adaptive equipment, there are even fewer places.

In 2014, after Sabasteanski started teaching at USM’s Lewiston-Auburn College, she began incorporating her occupational therapy students.

They seemed to fill a niche.

“They bridge the gap between the veterans and the community,” she said. “You have these students who are involved, and they’re showing their interest in these veterans. They’re listening. And they’re not judging.”

Colby, who is in her second semester of the Master’s program, said she’d never talked much with veterans before she enrolled in Sabasteanski’s program. And before the first class’s cross-country skiing demonstration, neither she nor her classmates had strapped on skis before.

Instantly, the students were being assisted by the veterans.

“This program is amazing,” Colby said.  “All of us are brand new to skiing. During the first couple of weeks, we weren’t helping them. They were helping us. It’s a team thing. We show up and it was not really about volunteers and participants. We were all here together.”

The students also tried out some of the adaptive equipment. All of it was challenging, said student Lauren Peer.

“It was eye opening, how much harder it is to do,” she said.

 Sabasteanski began learning what extraordinary athleticism it takes to use the equipment when she was an Olympian, watching participants compete in the Paralympics.

“We’re thinking we’re all that and we see these Paralympians, who have no arms or no legs, going up the hills that we had trouble climbing,” she said. “I was really intrigued by adaptive sports.”

At VAST, veterans use sit skis, sports wheelchairs and other tools.

In the end, it’s about connections among people.

Among the veterans, their shared experiences help them open up to each other.

“It’s all about the camaraderie,” said Melito, who served in the post-World War II Berlin Airlift and earned two degrees at USM. “Here, I see all these veterans. So many need help.”

However much their physical skills may improve, the veterans in the program all seem to find meaning in being together, Sabasteanski said.

When she started VAST, she hoped to have 10 veterans attend events. In 2018, the program gathered 220.

“This is a way I can give back, to do something for somebody else that makes me feel good about myself,” she said.

Read more about Sabasteanski in the Council of Graduate School's website, where she was featured as a graduate school degree holder who had an impact on her community.

 

Story by Dan Hartill and photos by Alan Bennett, Office of Public Affairs