MARQUETTE, Mich. (WJMN) – SAIL Disability Network of the Upper Peninsula works to connect people with visible or invisible disabilities with resources in their communities. Part of the disabled community in the Upper Peninsula includes veterans. They saw that need and created more programming and resources to continue their mission.
Gayle Maurer is a Disability Advocate for Health and Wellness with SAIL. She oversees the Single Point for Activities and Recreation or SPAR program.
“We help them find resources to live better lives. We want to make communities accessible for them. We empower them to make their own decisions,” said Maurer.
From employment to housing and food, even finding CARES funding in the middle of COVID-19, those are some of the services provided by SAIL.
“We will talk with you to get information about your background, what are the needs you have right now. We are not an emergency crisis organization, but we’ll talk with someone and see what their goals might be,” added Maurer.
Their goal is to connect people with the right resources, wherever they live.
“We are not here to tell people what we think they need.”
The SPAR program is set to relaunch this winter, which Maurer says is looking very different in the face of COVID. “It may seem like a small thing to people, getting outside and riding a bike. But these are people that haven’t done that in a while. The looks on their faces when they are able to do that. When that’s their goal that they’ve reached. It really means a lot to them.”
Keeping people active and taking advantage of the abundant outdoor accessibility is a big part of the program.
“We have to keep them accessible. We’ve been doing bike rides and hikes. We recently went up Sugarloaf on the new path which is fantastic. We went with a woman who had lived in the area her whole life and never been to the top of Sugarloaf. She got to the top and was so proud of herself. She was like, “I conquered that mountain,” and that was fantastic.”
Part of the SPAR is the U.P. Vets Served program. It is for veterans with or without disabilities. It’s a way to provide camaraderie, learning, and support for each other. That means planning activities where veterans can be together in a supportive setting doing things they enjoy. A lot of times it’s enjoying outdoor activities for them and their families.
“They just have an understanding of each other that someone who’s not a veteran may not understand.”
Andrew Bek is an advisor to SAIL. There is a steering committee comprised of veterans like Bek who advise SAIL on outreach and programming and serve as an introduction to the culture of being a veteran.
Bek enlisted in the Marine Corps 40 years ago at the age of 17. “As soon as I got done with my military service I was looking to go to college. I heard about Northern Michigan University from a friend. So I came up here to go to school and never left.”
He started out in healthcare. Marquette General Hospital had a two year radiology program that Bek attended. He followed it up with a bachelors degree in social studies then his Master’s degree in public administration.
Bek says approximately 30,000 people in the U.P. are veterans. Based on previous census data, the total population of the region is 300,000. That’s one in every ten people.
“A big part of what we do is outreach. On a national level, the wounded warrior project and other veteran charities have really stepped up after this last round of hostilities. We have a lot of men and women coming home injured in the last 20 years. After the Veteran’s Administration gets you patched up medically, often times you’re left to go and do the best you can with what you have left,” said Bek.
He says those groups try to tighten the safety net for veterans. “What we did is what we brought some of those programs back to the U.P. and we did what we always do as Yoopers is take a good idea and make it ours.”
He says the partnership started with an idea called Team River Runners, a kayaking outfit for people with disabilities. Then they found SAIL had adaptive equipment.
“Many of the veterans that we serve, they struggle with physical and emotional challenges, so finding a source for adaptive kayaks and bicycles, snow shoes and skis, along with personnel that are knowledgable about introducing people to those sports are very helpful.”
Bek talked about the benefits of spending time with other veterans.
“Just the feeling of shared sheer delight when we’re out doing these things. You look over at your friend and he’s on a dog sled and you’re on a dog sled and you’re mushing through the woods at McMillan at 15 miles an hour, just to look over and see another veteran and have that moment of connection. This is great. This is what’s left after our time we’ve served and recovered, and everything else that goes on in our lives, there’s this moment of shared action and adventure. That’s what the conversations are about.”
Bek adds that most events have a wellness component. There’s a lot of that sharing that goes on informally as well. They invite experts on stretching, meditation, yoga, nutrition or they bring information about other programs and benefits that are available to them. Whether it’s for civilians or veterans.
“These are my people. This is my tribe and there’s that feeling of recognition and acceptance. We also hold each other to a high standard. We have each other’s backs.”