WEST HAVEN, Conn. — Though many gathered Tuesday for an art exhibit at the West Haven Veterans Museum and Learning Center, the improv performance, paintings, music and poetry on display weren’t the real focal point.
University of New Haven students and veterans from the VA Connecticut Healthcare System’s West Haven Medical Center couldn’t help but talk instead about the friendships they formed while developing the exhibit, acting more like family than acquaintances.
They presented their work during a celebratory reception Tuesday at the museum, which will host the exhibit through May 4.
“I left with new friends,” UNH student Andrea Ortiz told veterans. “As a young person, it’s strange — no offense — to think you can be friends with older people. … It was definitely very eye-opening. We love you guys.”
UNH students in March volunteered with an art therapy program that’s been in operation at the VA hospital for years, assisting veterans with art projects and working on their own in an initiative dubbed “Exit 43,” after the highway exit that brings visitors to the hospital and UNH. In return, the veterans served as mentors.
Veterans at the reception shared poems about being a soldier and coming home from war, while artwork depicted trees, boats and fish. But the program was about more than making art, veterans and students said.
“I thought, ‘I should do this. I should be involved in something that matters to someone besides myself,’” said Kristie Patterson, a UNH forensics major.
“But it means so much to us,” Ortiz added. “When we started off, we didn’t know what to expect.”
During the art therapy sessions at the hospital, veterans told war stories, and students talked about their personal struggles.
George La Bounty, a Vietnam veteran who served in the Navy, on Tuesday read a poem he wrote and said it’s important younger generations hear their stories, especially how Vietnam veterans weren’t welcomed home, he said.
“It’s nice to be the elder. We never had a chance to be elders because no one wanted to listen to us,” the Oxford resident said, before hugging Ortiz goodbye and planning the next time she would visit the hospital.
Frank DiDia, who served in the Air Force during Vietnam and now lives in Orange, said he appreciated questions the students asked.
“It was a blessing to have them out here,” said DiDia, who drew a picture of helicopters and a self-portrait based on an old photograph of him in uniform.
Independent consultant Janet Zamparo ran the program as a volunteer after coordinating the effort with UNH and the hospital.
The partnership also included the museum, which was the “ideal place” to accommodate artwork once it was completed, said Public Works Commissioner Beth Sabo, who is vice president of the museum board of directors.
Zamparo’s goals were to make the public aware of varying challenges faced by veterans and bring diverse groups of people together through art.
“It was pretty amazing to see,” Zamparo said of the art therapy sessions. “The process is intense. … It was a transformative experience for everyone involved.”
The museum, at 30 Hood Terrace, is open Wednesdays and Fridays noon to 4 p.m. and Saturdays 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission is free.