Vt. Nonprofit Offers Ski Opportunities for Veterans, Aiming to Combat Isolation

Vermont Adaptive Veteran Ventures provides veterans with free skiing and riding

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The newly-signed $1.7-trillion federal spending bill contains $500,000 for a nonprofit in Vermont, under a funding request championed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, an Independent.

The money will boost Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports in its efforts to improve the ability of people with disabilities to fully participate in outdoor recreation options. That includes a program to provide opportunities for veterans who would benefit from participating in outdoor activities.

John Scott, an Iraq War veteran who lives in Williamstown, said the program has been transformational for him.

"The nightmares, they don't ever end," Scott lamented.

The Army veteran described coming back from Iraq changed. In an interview Friday with NECN and NBC10 Boston, Scott explained he had post-traumatic stress, was in mental crisis, and was unhoused for a decade.

Scott praised the VFW and American Legion as some of the groups that offered him help getting back on his feet. A major mood-boost came from Vermont Adaptive Veteran Ventures, he emphasized.

The nonprofit provides ski and ride lessons, equipment, and lift tickets at no cost to veterans like him.

"I hit a real wall during COVID," Scott said, referring to a sense of isolation and despair he felt. "And this gave me an out from other choices. If you've ever been a veteran, and any veteran knows, those choices can be dark. But coming out to places like this, it helps with new memories, and new experiences. It helps to put joy and tries to make life just a little bit better."

Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports has long supported physically disabled vets, it wrote on its website. Now, the organization reports seeing a much wider range of disabilities stemming from recent conflicts: both visible, like limb loss, and invisible, such as brain injuries or perhaps struggles from exposure to toxic materials.

Misha Pemble-Belkin leads the Veteran Ventures program. While he said participants all have their own unique goals, he most wants to help them combat isolation.

"Sometimes, you don't reintegrate back into society," Pemble-Belkin explained, referring to an experience he said many veterans have.

Pemble-Belkin knows how good camaraderie can be for someone's mental health, because he did two tours as an Army paratrooper in Afghanistan — where he said he suffered multiple physical injuries, including from bomb blasts.

"It's also important for me to show others you can overcome these obstacles as a peer, and also as a mentor," Pemble-Belkin added.

Vermont Adaptive's executive director, Erin Fernandez, said uplifting veterans fits perfectly into the organization’s larger mission to help anyone with disabilities build self-confidence through sports and activities, year-round.

"They've become like family," Fernandez said of program participants. "We just want people to be able to access the outdoors and get out and play."

Scott, who said he has enjoyed skiing with Vermont Adaptive Veteran Ventures because it has been helpful to be around people who understand his experience, said he's in a good place today. He owns a home and has a family, he told NECN and NBC10 Boston.

Through skiing, Scott has also found a metaphor for life: You're likely to fall down a time or two, but it's in getting back up where the fun and the growth happen.

"This is a place to find your hope," Scott said of the Vermont Adaptive headquarters at Sugarbush Resort.

Help is available for veterans in crisis, who can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988, then press 1 to reach caring responders trained in military culture.

If you or someone you know needs help, please contact the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by calling 988, call the National Suicide Prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting ‘Home’ to 741741, anytime.

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