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No Veteran Left Behind

By Allison Maggy and Joel Wood • Photos Supplied

Deep in the heart of the Adirondacks, twice a month, a group of veterans gather to find camaraderie and heal collective trauma. They arrive as a group of strangers and after a weekend immersed in nature with outdoor-focused healing activities, they leave with new friendships and a new support system they otherwise may never have found.

The retreats are organized by Homeward Bound Adirondacks, a non-profit organization located in Saranac Lake, dedicated to empowering veterans to reclaim their lives and find hope beyond the trauma they have endured.

To learn more about the organization and the work it does, we sat down with Homeward Bound’s Executive Director, Valerie Ainsworth, who started with the organization as a volunteer in 2012. A few years later, she became a board member and was hired as the Executive Director for the organization in 2015. Ainsworth is a seasoned mental health care professional with a robust background in trauma, PTSD and services tailored for veterans and military personnel.

Homeward Bound Adirondacks was founded in 2010 by a group of Saranac Lake locals, but was the brainchild of cartoonist Garry Trudeau. Garry is best known as the author of Doonesbury comics and for his family’s legacy starting the Trudeau Institute, with its rich history in medical advancements treating and healing tuberculosis. Garry’s passion for giving back to the community also extends to our service members.

“Garry was visiting soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital who were returning from war,” Ainsworth explained to us. “And he thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if these soldiers could come to the Adirondacks to help them heal from their PTSD and other wounds they came back with.’”

The organization’s core objectives are twofold: first, to guarantee that our community’s veterans have access to the multifaceted support and resources requisite for their well-being, and second, to make a substantive, positive impact in the lives of veterans throughout Northern New York.

Finding Healing in Nature

Each Homeward Bound Adirondacks retreat hosts twenty to twenty-five veterans. These three-day nature retreats take advantage of the beautiful landscape and geographic offerings of the Adirondack Park, allowing veterans to immerse in nature and partake in outdoor activities such as ice fishing, snow shoeing, hiking, kayaking, and so much more.

For many of the retreat’s veterans, this is their first time in the Adirondacks and they are awe-struck by its beauty. “This is one of the key features of the retreats,” Ainsworth explained. “The serene, healing, peacefulness of the wilderness.”

“When everyone arrives on Friday, nobody knows anybody. They are all a group of strangers,” Ainsworth said. On their first night, veterans enjoy a group dinner, an evening of team building and ice-breaker activities and the night concludes with a campfire.

The next day, the group participates in an outdoor activity, with the type of activity varying based upon the season. By intertwining structured activities with free exploration time during the retreats, veterans find myriad ways to connect with nature and, in the process, with their inner selves. Activities may include hiking, kayaking, snowshoeing, or ice fishing. This is where the real bonding begins. “There is something about the activity and all of the veterans being together,” Ainsworth recounted. “They get to know each other very quickly and they are super excited about being together with other veterans and that whole feeling of camaraderie.”

Saturday evenings end with a campfire. “And that is the most powerful event of the retreat,” Ainsworth explained. After the retreat she often hears from veterans that the Saturday night campfire provided them with a safe place where they could talk about things they could not talk about anywhere else. Deep emotional bonds are formed and a deep healing can take place. “There is a sort of catharsis,” Ainsworth offered. “A lot of times there’s this agreement to leave some of these demons behind at the fire. To begin to move on. To begin a new life.”

Due to the heavy nature of the Saturday night campfires, Sunday mornings are focused on a soothing and healing activity such as a morning hike, yoga, a sound journey, or tai-chi. And then veterans begin the journey back to their homes and their home communities. “After lunch on Sunday, everybody heads their own way with new contacts, new friends and a new support network,” Ainsworth explained. “Someone who arrived on Friday night, who was shy and awkward and didn’t know if they wanted to be here, by Sunday had a new group of friends and support in their life.”

A Unique Peer-to-Peer Model

On average, Homeward Bound Adirondacks serves between 400-500 veterans per year. They serve all ages. A majority are from the North Country, but some travel from as far away as Buffalo, Staten Island, New York City, Pennsylvania and beyond. The retreat is free and services come at no-cost to the veterans. However, the one thing that the organization cannot pay for is transportation/travel expenses.

Despite receiving some crucial grant funding support from the Veteran’s Administration and other federal and state agencies, Homeward Bound Adirondacks is not affiliated with any government agency or entity. It relies heavily on the support and generosity of local businesses, organizations and individuals who are drawn to supporting the organization’s mission.

Both the staff and volunteer team at Homeward Bound Adirondacks are made up predominantly of veterans whose shared experiences ensure that their services resonate personally and effectively with fellow veterans.

According to the 2020 Census Bureau Report on Veterans, approximately 1.7 million, or nine percent of veterans, were women in 2018. That number is projected to jump to 17 percent by 2040. Homeward Bound Adirondacks serves male and female veterans. Participating veterans are paired with individuals who have traveled similar paths or faced comparable challenges. These mentor-mentee relationships provide a safe and trusting environment where veterans can openly discuss their experiences, fears, hopes, and aspirations. It’s a space free of judgment, where both parties can relate to each other’s stories and perspectives.

A Myriad of Services and 24/7 Support

In addition to their retreats, Homeward Bound Adirondacks has developed a multifaceted approach to veteran well-being. Year-round services offered by the organization include crisis outreach, peer mentoring, suicide prevention initiatives, referral services, transportation to VA appointments in the North Country and as far away as Albany, transportation to medical appointments, and to Veteran’s Court in Essex County. In addition to these services, the organization also assists veterans in applying for benefits and claims through the VA.

Community connections are vital to the mission of Homeward Bound Adirondacks to make sure veterans are connected to crucial services. The organization works closely with other groups in the community, such as St. Joseph’s Veterans Program and local community-based veterans’ clinics. They also provide emergency services, such as aiding veterans who are out of fuel or out of food. The offices are staffed five days per week and the crisis outreach phone line is staffed 24/7. All of these services offered to veterans are free.

The Impact

The impact the services and retreats offered by the organization has on veterans is encapsulated by the feedback Ainsworth receives from veterans who have completed their programs. “We’ve had veterans who come to this retreat as a last resort,” she explained. “They say ‘I’ll give this a try. If this doesn’t work, I just can’t take it anymore’. And then, because of finding other veterans and a support system and a community, they tell me they no longer wish to take their own lives even though they had every intention of it before coming to the retreat.”

The organization encourages all veterans who utilize their services to seek out additional programs that can offer ongoing services, such as the Veteran’s Administration and other licensed mental health services in their own communities.

Homeward Bound Adirondacks

24 Depot Street

Saranac Lake, NY 12983

518 354-5144

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