Veterans Helping Veterans: Adaptive Sports Program Shows Power of Occupation
Her passion for helping veterans began in graduate school, but it is safe to say that Kristina Sabasteanski, OTR/L, was a nontraditional student. She represented the U.S. in two winter Olympics, competing in the biathlon in 1998 and 2002, and she spent 10 years in the army before enrolling in an occupational therapy program.
“I got my master’s in OT using the G.I. bill, but I remember being in school and my classmates all have a background in health and medicine, and I have no background in health and I’m thinking, wow, I can ski and shoot well,” says Sabasteanski. “Where do I fit in to this classroom?”
Sabasteanski decided to make a place for herself, and she did so rather quickly. Her Veterans Adaptive Sports and Training (VAST) program has recently been profiled by the Portland Press Herald and a Portland news station. She started the program last May and has had a lot of success helping veterans with physical disabilities, traumatic brain injuries (TBI), and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) turn to sports to reintegrate in the community and find friendship and healing.
It was only a few years ago when Sabasteanski was in graduate school doing volunteer work and internships working with veterans. After volunteering for a 4-day Paralympic military sports camp, Sabasteanski saw firsthand the power of adaptive sports. “At the end of the four days I was amazed at the huge transformation in the participants’ confidence,” she says. “They were more outgoing. They seemed more excited about their options. Their whole nature changed. I was blown away.”
Sabasteanski had found her niche.
Before creating VAST, Sabasteanski volunteered and ran a few other adaptive sports programs for veterans. When she started VAST, she partnered with a local nonprofit, Pineland Farms, that has a 5,000-acre campus with a cross country skiing trail system (and running and mountain biking trails in the summer). With a grant from the Paralympics and the Department of Veterans Affairs, Sabasteanski had the perfect set up for her program.
“We try to eliminate all the barriers that the veterans might have, so it’s completely free,” she says. “We have all the equipment here.” Once a week veterans are invited to learn how to ski for free. The program is year round, so when the snow melts they can participate in archery or cycling. Sabasteanski and volunteers (most of whom are veterans themselves) assist and adapt the activities for each veteran, but the focus is really on camaraderie. “Nobody is necessarily a volunteer or a participant. We’re all just veterans helping veterans,” she says.
As an occupational therapist, Sabasteanski tries to keep the program client-centered and focuses on the needs and goals of each veteran. “I try to figure out what they want to do,” she says. “I have them be the advocates for themselves. We’ll create a program based on [their] needs. I use the theory, ‘if you come, we will build it.’”
Veterans who have participated in VAST have cited a variety of reasons why the program works—whether it’s actually learning how to ski or the sense of community they get from participating. “A lot of them say, especially in the winter, they remember the days of the week because of this program,” says Sabasteanski. “Normally all the days blend in because a lot of them aren’t working. But they always remember Wednesday, because Wednesday is the day of the program. It really gives them a reason to get out of the house in the winter.”
Sabasteanski recently had a lot of success with a young veteran at an event run by Maine Adaptive Sports and Recreation. She noticed that he was fit, so she knew that she was going to get him skiing. The vet had a lower spinal cord injury and shrapnel in his legs, and his gait was compromised from a car bomb in Iraq. Using adaptive equipment, Sabasteanski helped him start to ski, and encouraged him when several falls got him frustrated. Finally, he was skiing with ease.
“He finished and he said, ‘you know what, this is the first time I feel normal,’” says Sabasteanski. “‘When I walk, people look at me because I have a limp and I drag my foot and I have a cane. But when I’m skiing I’m like everybody else—I’m normal.’ He was totally psyched and he’s going to join us next week at VAST.”
Sabasteanski still frequently volunteers with other veterans’ programs in her community to help out and get ideas about what is (and isn’t) working. She also wants to be aware of other programs that her veterans can attend.
“There are so many opportunities nowadays, and you hear feedback from some of the veterans that they just don’t know what’s out there,” she says. “We’re thinking that veterans are at home and are being inundated with all these programs and opportunities and they just don’t want to go.” But Sabasteanski says that many of the veterans who come to her program say they wish they had known about it and other similar programs years ago. “We need to spread the word that there are a lot of opportunities for veterans.”
Sabasteanski believes that her program has a promising future, especially considering the low overhead cost and the fact that she was able to partner with a stable nonprofit. Sabasteanski also works several days a week at a skilled nursing facility. “Maybe in the future running the program could be my full time work, but I still want to learn as much as I can about being an occupational therapist in a traditional setting,” she says. “I think it will help me, and I’m still learning a ton every day.”
Sabasteanski believes that the social aspect of her program is a big draw for veterans. “They say it’s just so great hanging out with other veterans, that sense of camaraderie,” she says. “You are instantly accepted.”
Ultimately it is the power of occupation, in this case sports, that is allowing the veterans participating in VAST to mediate stress, build community, and heal. “It’s great because it just seems like a little thing—going skiing or biking—but they feel like themselves again,” says Sabasteanski.
Stephanie Yamkovenko is AOTA’s Web editor.