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    Tuesday, April 16, 2024

    Therapeutic equine program for veterans threatened by property sale

    In this file photo, veterans Jimmy Bishop, left, and Patrick deMunecas guide Lulu, a mini horse, through the ring at Veterans Equine Therapeutic Services on Sunday, April 10, 2022. (Sarah Gordon/The Day file photo)
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    Stonington ― One year after the death of co-founder and Executive Director Craig McAlister, Veterans Equine Therapeutic Services is facing another uphill battle.

    The nonprofit organization that uses kinesthetic, experiential programming to help veterans deal with the challenges of life during and after military service, is now racing to find a new home for its equine program.

    V.E.T.S. has used the 340 New London Turnpike Light House Homestead, owned by Lighthouse Voc-Ed Center, as well as three of the facility’s six horses to provide therapeutic services to veterans since its inception in 2014. The pending sale has left the organization scrambling to find a new home for the program, which has served more than 1,000 veterans and active-duty service members in the last 10 years.

    On Wednesday, V.E.T.S. instructor, curriculum developer, and co-founder Thor Torgersen said last fall, while the organization was in transition after 10 years under McAlister’s leadership, board members and volunteers began to hear rumors about the potential sale of the equestrian facility. The 37.5-acre property, listed for sale at $2,375,000, went under contract to sell last month, according to Redfin.com.

    On June 8, V.E.T.S. will no longer have use of the property.

    Torgersen said Lighthouse rejected the organization’s offer to rent the property but offered to let it take ownership of the three horses; however, accepting ownership presents its own challenges for the all-volunteer organization.

    “That’s my concern ― that the best decision is made for the herd, and the best decision is made for the veterans, and I would not want to do a disservice and say, ‘Yes, we can take these animals’ and then not be able to care for them,” he said, explaining the organization does not have property of its own and has not yet found a boarding facility that suits its unique needs.

    The organization has other programming that is either held offsite or can easily be relocated, including an outdoor skills program, an archery program that launched last year, and an agricultural program, but the equine program is integral to working with participants struggling with reintegration or adjustment issues after deployment, transitioning to civilian life, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

    “Horses are the poster child for PTSD. They survived thousands of years with hyper-vigilance, trust issues, fight or flight, all those markers that are PTSD markers have caused them to survive, and it’s a great tool for survival,” Torgersen explained.

    “People come out and say, ‘I’ve got PTSD,’ but I say, ‘You’re just a horse, and we can work with that,’” he said, explaining that the horses teach participants about trust-based relationships, non-verbal communication, and non-linear problem solving, as well as to recognize when they are in a state of heightened tension and to consciously relax.

    With an informal motto of, “When you think nobody’s coming to save you, we will,” the organization’s programming also motivates and provides companionship.

    “We are getting them around a group that can support them and has their best interests in mind, and it’s not around self-isolation, self-medicating, Xbox and Jack Daniels,” he said.

    While attempting to relocate the equine program, V.E.T.S. is continuing programming and planning for April’s third annual Ruck-Up event. The two-day invitational school of intense equine therapy, outdoor skills, archery and firearms skills training teaches participants to use camp axes, build survival shelters and start a fire with rocks, sticks and fire steel, among other skills.

    It is also looking into purchasing a property to consolidate programming and operate full time, expand current programming, bring back its popular culinary program, Cowboy Kitchen, and add new ones like overnight camping, outdoor schools and transition programs for individuals exiting the service.

    But that comes at a cost for the organization which has always maintained a lean operating budget.

    “We have never really pushed as far as going for large grants or going to the state for money,” he said. We’ve always been this ‘small little program that could’ over here in the corner of the state, doing some amazing stuff for some amazing people,” he said explaining that the organization is now looking for broader financial support or volunteers familiar with securing grants and government funding.

    Torgersen estimates that it would need to raise $900,000 to ensure the long-term stability and security of the organization.

    “We’ve proven the model of what we’re doing. It’s not like we’re some backyard organization who is just getting started,” he said.

    For more information about the organization, its services or to donate go to www.vetsct.org.

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