With fall event after fall event falling prey to COVID-19, the organizers of Vet Fest considered canceling, too.
“There’s a million reasons we should not have had Vet Fest this year,” said organizer Brian DiSabatino. “But as we sort of searched our souls in the spring, we said if we’re going to be an advocate for people who are despairing, searching for a glimmer of hope, and we’re telling them to not pack up their tent and to reach out one more time, then we owed them some kind of event to celebrate them and to bring them a little bit of light.”
Vet Fest, which salutes the members of the military while focusing on ending veteran suicide, also raises money to help connect suffering veterans with help and then continue to advocate for them.
This year’s event is Saturday in the Town of Whitehall. It will include a 5K, 10K ruck race (participants wear a backback), .5 race for kids and family walk. All can be done in person or virtually.
Lunch for veterans and musical entertainment runs from noon to 2 p.m.
And this year at 11 a.m., there will be surprise entertainment, DiSabatino said.
The DiSabatino family and friends got involved in the issue of veteran suicide years ago after Brian’s son Jacob, now a 2nd lieutenant in the U.S. Army, was looking for a service project when he was a student at St. Mark’s. Family friend Brian Kinsella worked with Stop Soldier Suicide and suggested Jacob organize a 5K to raise money for it.
Instead, Jacob started the 22in22 Challenge. Because 22 soldiers a day commit suicide, the organization asks people to run or walk 22 miles in 22 days, or do 22 pushups for 22 days.
Jacob started with his high school football team, and the program has grown since then. He even spoke to both houses of the Delaware State Legislature, and everybody dropped to the floor to do 22 pushups, Brian DiSabatino said.
“It’s the most united I’ve ever seen them,” Brian said.
Vet Fest has raised about $150,000 for its advocacy program, and 22in22 has raised about $100,000, Brian DiSabatino said.
The organization has a social media presence with which it reaches out to veterans. When someone responds that he or she needs help, the group usually has cases workers at that person’s front door within 24 hours. The case workers help connect the veterans with programs and services that can help.
“It’s a big difference between that and the delivery service they are getting from the VA,” Brian said.
The program also is able to do things that the Veteran’s Administration is not yet comfortable with, he said, such as connecting veterans with service dogs.
The organization doesn’t pay for treatments, but will help veterans explore options for financial help, including accessing philanthropy running through those service organizations to help pay for treatments or other things.
Vet Fest sticks with the veteran for about two years.
Since it began, Brian said, “We have seen probably a 40 percent reduction in suicide in the first 30 days.”
He said University of Delaware athletes wanted to participate, but cannot come to the site because of the COVID-19 pandemic, so they are doing their own program. UD also has VCAT, a 12-week program that connects veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts with student athletes. They attend workouts and wellness programs together. Any money raised by the athletes will be split between the two programs, Brian said.
This year, the virtual race for kids also has an online curriculum created by Mt. Pleasant Elementary School librarian Mary Grace Flowers. Through Google Sheets, she created a multimedia slide show that connects teachers, parents and kids to information about the race, how to make start and finish line, and ways to support military families in the community and why you should do it.
Flowers’ family is friends with the DiSabatinos, and she wanted to help families connect with the program, especially because if they can’t attend it.
“Brian is just so involved,” she said. “How could we not be involved?”
She worked with Brian’s sister, Paula, to create the digital lesson plan.
“This virtual race thing is very trendy, and it’s trending with groups of friends and with runners,” Flowers said.
She wanted it to be fun, too, and established ways for kids to upload photos of their red, white and blue outfits, their start line and their finish line so others could see them.
It’s available to any teachers and others who want to use it. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“It’s not difficult,” Flowers said. “You set up your own little run, and it gets the kids away from their screens and gets them outside to walk or run 2,640 feet.”