Homeward Bound plans first veterans academy

SARANAC LAKE – Homeward Bound Adirondacks is planning for its first Veterans Reintegration Academy later this year at the Prescott House.

The nonprofit group hopes to enroll 20 to 25 veterans in the academy’s first class, beginning with a summer session in July and followed by two semesters of higher education classes in the fall and spring.

“We’re working with Clarkson University and Paul Smith’s College and North Country Community College to make that go from a two-dimensional, piece-of-paper proposal to an actual working institution,” said Homeward Bound Program Coordinator Jordanna Mallach.

The academy would be a major milestone for Homeward Bound, which was launched three years ago as a proposed veterans retreat and reintegration center. It was billed as a project that could transform the community and help return Saranac Lake to its roots as a healing community. Since then, organizers have partnered with other groups to host a number of veteran healing and reintegration programs, but they’ve also struggled with fundraising challenges and internal disputes about the organization’s direction.

In the past year, however, Homeward Bound has moved forward. It’s secured nonprofit status, it has three paid staff members, and it’s secured office space at the Prescott House, a former tuberculosis hospital at the end of Franklin Avenue. The group has reactivated its community advisory board, scheduled a series of programs, including the Veterans Reintegration Academy, and it’s received a matching fund donation of $150,000 from an unnamed donor to help the group buy the Prescott House.

“I can say that things are moving at a really good rate of speed,” said Mallach, a Lake Placid resident and company commander in the Vermont Army National Guard. “When I came on board (in November), I don’t know that there was a very clear direction, but I feel like there is now. It took a while, like any group trying to get reignited.”

Veterans who enroll in the reintegration academy will technically be Clarkson students, but the classes they take will be held at the Prescott House, where they’ll live, or at other locations in the community. Mallach said she’s currently working on the curriculum, which will include general education classes like writing, history, pre-calculus, business and personal finance, among others.

Although that may look like a typical college freshman course load, Mallach said many of the classes will be tweaked to appeal to veterans, like the history class, which will examine war in society.

“The biggest difference isn’t necessarily in the courses being taught; it’s in the wraparound services that are being provided and the environment in which it’s being taught,” she said. “The students will be going through as a cohort, so they’ll take all their classes together, and there’s going to be more resources available for support and academic support than there would be for a student traditionally.”

Many veterans try to go to college after their military service but drop out because they struggle to fit in with other students, said retired Army Major Gen. Mark Graham, who’s serving as an executive consultant to Homeward Bound.

“This Veteran Reintegration Academy gives them a chance to go through together with a group of like-minded folks who’ve served in the military and are also been in the boat of having been out of school for a while,” Graham said. “It will be a focused effort for them to say, ‘What are your dreams? What do you want to do next?’ We want to see them be successful.”

While Homeward Bound isn’t the only organization providing veteran reintegration services around the country, Graham believes the academy model is unique.

“There’s a lot of people out there with veteran programs and schools, but we’re not aware of anyone who has a program where you bring veterans in and they go to school together for a year,” he said.

The reintegration academy classes will be taught by professors at the three colleges, Mallach said. In some cases they may be taught via video conference by a professor at Clarkson, although Mallach said a teaching assistant will always be present in the classroom. The veterans who enroll in the academy can pay for their tuition using the G.I. Bill and earn credits that will be transferrable to other colleges and universities, Mallach said.

Registration for the academy began March 1. So far, Mallach said only a couple of people have expressed interest, but she said she’s just starting to get the word out about it. She plans to deliver presentations to groups of soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, and make appearances at veteran events around the state. Homeward Bound has also distributed information about its offerings to Fort Drum and National Guard offices in New York, New Jersey, Vermont and Connecticut. And it has a new website, www.hbadk.org.

Apart from the academy, the organization has scheduled five programs this spring in partnership with other organizations. Homeward Bound and Creative Healing Connections are planning a rest and relaxation weekend for service members and their families in Lake Placid from April 5-7. A four-day film workshop in partnership with the Patton Veterans Projet – led by a grandson of World War II Gen. George S. Patton Jr. – is scheduled in early April in Lake Placid for service members suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and reintegration issues. A pair of equine retreats, where horses will be used to provide therapy to returning veterans, are planned this spring in Westport.

The organization is also continuing its fundraising efforts. Mallach said the matching grant would be used to help purchase the Prescott House. Every dollar donated in support of the capital project will be matched dollar for dollar up to a total of $150,000.

Mallach said she’s filed several other grant applications, including one to the North Country Regional Economic Development Council, which wasn’t awarded this year. The organization did, however, receive a grant from the High Peaks Resort, which will host one of its spring programs.

Mallach, who served in Afghanistan, said she believes there’s a strong need for organizations like Homeward Bound within the veteran community.

“There’s a need for a place for veterans to go that isn’t the (Veterans Administration), isn’t the Department of Defense and isn’t the government,” she said. “It’s unrealistic to think someone is going to go overseas, do their job and come back unchanged. Homeward Bound can provide service members and their families with opportunities to reconnect to their community and give them the tools they need to find success in the civilian world.”

Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or cknight@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.