SARANAC LAKE - Homeward Bound Adirondacks has a new location and a new focus.
The nonprofit veteran support and reintegration group, which launched in 2010 but has struggled to live up to its initial billing, is now headquartered in a second-floor office at 81 Main St., above Blue Line Sports.
Prior to that, since November 2012, Homeward Bound had leased space at the Prescott House, a former tuberculosis intake hospital at the top of Franklin Avenue. The decision to move to a new site came after the organization's plan to host a Veteran Reintegration Academy last year never got off the ground. Homeward Bound was working with Clarkson University, Paul Smith's College and North Country Community College to provide veteran-specific college classes to a group of 20 to 25 soldiers at the Prescott House, but the plan was dropped due to a lack of interest.
"With the Prescott House, the idea was, with much fanfare, we wanted to open the reintegration academy," said Col. Eric Olsen of Saranac Lake, who recently retired as chaplain of the New York Army National Guard and is now Homeward Bound's part-time executive director after being involved since its beginning. "But the academy didn't have enough synergy and enough support here. We don't have the economic base here and the industrial base here. We don't have enough veterans wanting to come here."
Homeward Bound had received a $150,000 matching grant that it planned to use to eventually buy the Prescott House. Olsen said the funding has been altered and can be used in other ways.
"There was a vision there, but it was a leap too far too fast," he said. "In the future, we may revisit that, but it was taking a lot of energy and a lot of effort, and we weren't getting the programs and the services out there we needed to get. We'd rather work with Paul Smith's, Clarkson and North Country individually with their students to help provide the same services we would have with the reintegration academy."
The academy had been seen as a major milestone for Homeward Bound, which started four years ago as a proposed veterans' retreat and reintegration center. It was billed as a project that could transform Saranac Lake and help return it 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, leadership changes and internal disputes about the organization's direction.
"I think what happened is some of the partnerships took it in directions and with a design that wasn't conducive to the need that's out there," Olsen said. "I think we've accomplished a lot of good over the years. I don't think this is an entirely a reinvention. What we're trying to do is meet the need. There's been some deviation from what the original board thought we should do, and I think we're getting back to that more than ever before."
Olsen said Homeward Bound's new focus is to continue hosting veteran retreats locally while also coordinating services for veterans in the area.
"That's how we want to shift," he said. "And we're going to be using the entire North Country, not just Saranac Lake. Yesterday we were down in North Creek because they're interested in looking at programs there, and we're going to look at Old Forge as well - the entire Adirondack Park."
Homeward Bound recently received a donated van from the Disabled American Veterans office in Plattsburgh, which it plans to use to transport area veterans to appointments or even grocery shopping. Next month, Olsen said Homeward Bound will host a symposium of veteran, health care and law-enforcement agencies at North Country Community College to talk about veteran issues.
Over the past year, the organization has hosted a couple of fundraisers and small retreats, and it has put on several educational presentations about its mission, Olsen said. The group's last big event was in April 2013, when it partnered with Creative Healing Connections for a Lake Placid-based military family retreat that drew roughly 250 people.
"We've been trying to regroup a little bit, but the office has been assisting veterans around the area nonstop, whether it's helping them to find a job, helping them to write a resume," he said. "My desire is to meet the needs of the individuals and keep that as pure as possible."
Homeward Bound is currently planning a "Mountains to Manhattan" paddling trip in August that will take veterans from Crown Point to New York City in war canoes.
"It will be a canoe expedition, basically," said Joe Hackett of Ray Brook, a licensed guide and Enterprise outdoors columnist who's a member of Homeward Bound's Community Advisory Board. "We'll be camping all the way along and have veteran canoe rendezvous as we go down: at Saratoga battlefield, at Corning Park in Albany, at West Point. We'll have different programs available there. One of the things that's become pretty obvious to me is a lot of veterans don't know what's available to them."
"Our job is to get them out and not just have an excursion, but to deal with, around the campfire, the issues they're dealing with," Olsen said.
Homeward Bound is also raising money to buy materials for shadow boxes that would be built by volunteers. When a veteran passes away, his or her family would be given a shadow box to hold a flag or the veteran's medals. A spaghetti dinner is also planned later this month at the Saranac Lake Fish and Game Club.
Homeward Bound currently has three employees: Olsen, Program Coordinator Jordanna Mallach and Chessie Monks, the group's office manager.
For more information on its programs, visit www.hbadk.org or call 518-891-4151.