CHARLESTON, Maine — Michael Warren, 38, of Corinna enjoyed bonding with a group of combat veterans who gathered last week at Pine Grove Lodge in Bingham.
Having returned home from a tour of duty in Afghanistan in January 2010, Warren remembers the chilling combat in the war zone. “It was a stressful environment,” the Maine Army National Guard member said Thursday.
Those memories were far from his mind last week as he and other veterans participated in a day of hunting birds, not snipers, thanks to the Pine Grove Project. The project, an unusual collaborative involving a private business, a nonprofit organization and the Charleston Correctional Facility’s industry program, provides outdoor opportunities free of charge to men and women who protect and defend the country.
A select group of inmates and their correctional trades supervisor, Tom Sands, make wooden snowshoe frames and sell them to the veterans project, which is spearheaded by Pine Grove Lodge owners Bob and Andrea Howe. The Howes also own the Maine Guide Snowshoe Co. The Howes take the frames to the Veterans Affairs facility at Togus, where disabled veterans, some of whom are blind, are paid $20 an hour to add the ties. After the Howes apply the finish, the seven different styles of snowshoes are sold online, in stores and at trade shows for about $200 per pair. Profits are reinvested in the veterans project.
“I think it’s unusual where so many good things happen out of this collaboration,” Joseph Ponte, commissioner of the Department of Corrections, said Thursday.
Maine Guide Snowshoe in Bingham needed to expand its snowshoe-making capabilities in order to raise money to provide services to veterans while the prison industry program needed to expand its product line to create more opportunities for inmates, he said. So much good comes out of the “marrying of those two ventures,” he said.
For years, the Howes have welcomed veterans, first responders and other people who had survived wars and disasters.
“Back in the ’70s when I got out of school, I never went into the service. And everybody has to do their part, and this is the part that I chose to do is to help them as much as possible,” Bob Howe said. If the couple had an empty bed, they would offer it to a veteran free of charge, but it grew to the point where veterans were staying every week.
As interest spread, the Howes looked to expand the project. They partnered with American Greenlands Restoration Inc., owned by John Sferazo. Sferazo, a veteran and an emergency responder who became disabled while looking for body parts at ground zero in New York City in 2001, owns about 1,000 acres in the Bingham area that is managed for wildlife. He now allows the severely disabled to hunt on his property, which has observation towers and 1,600 birdhouses. Together, the Howes and Sferazo formed the Pine Grove Project, a nonprofit organization.
The project provides 17 different activities — from fishing and hunting, rafting, kayaking and snowshoe excursions to searches for moose and deer antlers. The activities often include free overnight lodging and meals.
Oftentimes special arrangements are necessary. For example, on Oct. 27, seven U.S. military snipers who were injured in Afghanistan will be at the lodge for a hunt. Because of the damage to their bodies, the veterans will ride rubber rafts pulled by snowmobiles, Howe said. The veterans then will be helped onto chairs that are placed on plywood to allow them to turn and shoot, he said.
While the project receives support from dog handlers throughout the state and several businesses — including Cabela’s, Ruger firearms, Renegade Wheelchair and J.W. Parks Golf Course in Pittsfield, which has raised about $2,000 for the past two years to help offset costs — much more is needed.
Howe and a pal, veteran Dave Giampetruzzi, approached Charleston prison officials this spring with the snowshoe idea, which was eagerly supported by Sands and Jeff Morin, director of the facility.
“Once we heard that we could help out vets … the collaboration was a no-brainer,” Morin said. “We are very excited to be a part of it.”
“They are such a big and important part of this whole thing,” Howe said of the Charleston facility. “We’re giving them jobs to do and we are very thankful that they can do it.”
Four of the machines used for the project were provided by Howe to keep the correctional facility’s costs down.
The inmates — who are paid from 50 cents to a $1.50 per hour for the work and who also use the snowshoe frames to make furniture, mirrors and clocks which are sold to the project for resale — enjoy the work. Inmate Gary Wozneak of Bangor, a carpenter by trade, constructed the molds, which make two sets of snowshoe frames at a time. He takes pride in his work and in an ideal situation can make 29 pairs of snowshoe frames a day.
“It makes me feel good to be able to give back; that’s what it’s really all about,” Wozneak said. “It’s like a gift — I get it and I give it back. It’s a good feeling.”
Sands, who has seven inmates who work to make the frames, from sawing the logs to bending the wood into shape, said the Legislature appointed an industries commission four years ago to look at making the prison industries more self-sufficient. “One of the things we’ve been looking for is a marriage or a partnership between a private business and the industries program, and this snowshoe project is perfect,” he said.
“I have to say that it is the most exciting project that I’ve been involved in in my 30 years in corrections,” Sands said. “Everybody involved will benefit in some way or fashion from this program, whether it is monetarily or spiritually.”
Ponte agreed. “It’s patriotic and meets the spiritual needs of our inmate population and staff,” he said. “It’s one of those projects that benefits everybody.”
For veterans such as Warren, “It shows us that what we do is appreciated.”