On a rainy Sunday afternoon in early June, a couple hundred people gathered on a dirt lot in New Milford, N.J., some huddled under tents and umbrellas, others braving the steady drizzle—some in military uniform, others dressed in shorts and T-shirts. In the background, orchestra strains of “America the Beautiful” invoked the small-town spirit of the event.
Amidst the crowd was a young man partially slumped in a wheelchair. He sat beside a podium where politicians, Girl Scouts, military officers and others celebrated the groundbreaking of what—in several months—will be his new home.
That man is Cpl. Visnu Gonzalez of the United States Marines. Just over three years ago, while serving in Iraq, he was paralyzed from the upper chest down when a sniper’s bullet severed his spinal cord. Despite surgical attempts to stabilize his vertebra, Gonzalez remains confined to a wheelchair. He was awarded the Purple Heart in 2004.
Thanks to Homes for Our Troops (HFOT), a Taunton, Mass.-based non-profit organization that builds and adapts homes for severely injured veterans, Gonzalez will soon be able to move into his own specially equipped home, and it won’t cost him anything.
“It’s just an honor for me that they could find a place like this for me,” Gonzalez said, addressing the crowd that June day. “It’s a bit overwhelming.”
This project is one of 20 in the works through HFOT, which broke ground on its first home in 2005 and has since completed homes for 15 veterans in California, Connecticut, Georgia, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Montana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Virginia. The group raises donations of money, building materials and professional labor to build new homes and/or adapt existing ones for handicapped accessibility.
HFOT was founded by John Gonsalves, a licensed construction supervisor and home improvement contractor who wanted to find a way to help injured U.S. soldiers. Since he couldn’t find an organization to join, he decided to start one himself—incorporating HFOT in March 2004.
“It was tough in the beginning. You’re a new non-profit with no track record, no financial statements, and on top of that, you’re trying to build a house,” Gonsalves said. “Getting that first house off the ground wasn’t easy.”
In fact, it took HFOT almost a year to raise enough money to start its first project—a handicap-equipped home on a two-acre lot in Middleboro, Mass., for severely injured Army National Guard member Peter Damon. “Since then, we’ve been able to get almost three dozen projects up and running,” said Tom Benoit, who joined HFOT as CFO in 2006. “Once people find out what we do, they hit themselves in the forehead and say, ‘Of course, I want to contribute to that.’ It’s a matter of getting the word out.”
And that’s exactly what has been happening, as three HFOT projects have been featured on ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” and the organization has received donations from numerous individuals and organizations, including the PGA of America and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Cincinnati Reds pitcher Bronson Arroyo donates $100 every time he strikes a batter out, while golfer Phil Mickelson’s “Birdies for the Braves” contributes $100 for every birdie Mickelson makes and $500 for every eagle—for a total of about $24,000 so far this year.
All told, HFOT has raised more than $10 million in cash and product donations, including a $3 million donation from an anonymous source in March. Still, the need remains greater than the funding. There are 20 injured veterans currently on a waiting list, and that number is growing all the time. “It’s like paddling against the tide,” Gonsalves said.
Made to order
Each HFOT project is built to meet the injured veteran’s specific needs, and many are specially equipped for wheelchair access with features that include widened doorways, roll-in showers, open floor plans, pull-down kitchen cabinets and ADA-compliant appliances. Here are some other examples of HFOT projects:
Spc. Russell Kyle Burleson of the 1st Cavalry Division was shot by a sniper and left a quadriplegic on a ventilator. HFOT built him a handicap accessible home in Springhill, La., with a rail system, automatic door openers and a generator room to back up his medical needs in an emergency.
In 2004, Joe Dan “Doc” Worley, a Navy Corpsman, was wounded in Iraq, losing his left leg while his right leg was severely damaged. HFOT purchased a home for the Worley family in Douglasville, Ga., installing a wheelchair ramp and widening the hallways to make it handicap accessible.
And, as documented in an episode of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” Cpl. Bobby Isaacs of the 101st Airborne Division, Fort Campbell, Ky., was severely injured in Iraq in 2004 by a roadside bomb, undergoing 37 operations before HFOT helped renovate his Roxboro, N.C., home.
Several corporations have stepped up to the plate to help complete these projects. Simonton Windows, a national sponsor and one of HFOT’s biggest supporters, has contributed windows and patio doors worth more than $200,000 to about 10 homes while also sponsoring the group’s first annual dinner banquet/auction in March, as well as some other smaller fundraising events. Simonton also financed a trip for two HFOT representatives to the 2005 International Builders’ Show, where they met other potential sponsors and spread the word about the organization.
“More than three years ago, one of our then-employees in marketing read about the fledgling organization in the paper and thought this would be an ideal group for us to support,” said Simonton spokeswoman Kathy Ziprik, whose company was named HFOT’s Outstanding Corporate Supporter of the Year in late March. “Because there is such a strong need for housing for severely disabled returning veterans, Simonton felt we could really make a difference with this group.”
Other corporate sponsors include the McKee Group (real estate company), Moen (kitchen/bath fixtures), Hy-Lite (acrylic block windows), Typon (urethane millwork), Dixie-Pacific (columns and railings) and Cool House Plans (home plans).
“Moen is very proud to support the brave Americans who have risked their lives for our freedom,” said Maureen Wenmoth, Moen’s vp-marketing services and brand development. “Many of these veterans are returning with life-changing disabilities. We hope that by providing a variety of products, from faucets and showers to grab bars and other bath safety items, we can reduce some of the challenges within their homes.”
HFOT also calls on local companies and professionals to donate building materials, services, labor and money to its various projects. In the case of Gonzalez’s New Milford, N.J., home, local companies Hywel Plumbing (plumbing materials), J.R. Toth & Co. (plumbing labor), WJM Architect (design) and Coldwell Banker (real estate services) have promised to donate their services to the project. In addition, the Bergen County Electrical Contractors Association (BCECA) has made the commitment to help put an elevator in Gonzalez’s house and equip it with voice-activated controls.
“Basically, whatever he needs, we’ll make sure he gets it,” said Walter Bembridge, an officer with the BCECA, who attended the groundbreaking ceremony. “He has done all he can for us. It seems like a small thing to give back.”
The McKee Group out of Springfield, Pa., built a home for Sgt. Pisey Tan, who lost both legs in an IED explosion, and handed him the keys on Dec. 7, 2006. This was a unique project in that HFOT purchased the lot, and the McKee Group arranged all the materials and labor to build the house. “We specialize in over-55 communities, so we just took our most popular floor plan and added some special features to it, like changing the height of the counters and customizing the shower,” said spokeswoman Jennifer McKee, whose family donated the cost of the land and additional money back to HFOT after the project was completed.
“In the end, we felt we got more out of it than we put in. In the four months it took to build the home, I saw teamwork like I’ve never seen before. And we learned so much from Pisey about what it means to be a hero.”
Craig Bennett, an architect based in McLean, Va., donated his services to a home built for Eugene Simpson, a 27-year-old father of four who was paralyzed from the waist down when an IED exploded near his vehicle in Tikrit, Iraq. In Simpson’s case, HFOT bought an existing home and retrofitted it to Simpson’s needs, adding ramps and widening doorways.
Bennett was involved in the project for two years and needed to draw up a second architectural plan when Simpson’s family situation changed mid-way through the project. “I had never heard of the organization but got involved because one of my friends was connected with the military,” Bennett said. “I was happy to help, and if they ever approached me again, I’d do it again.”
Kelly Tidwell, owner of Elite Electrical in Sterling, Va., was also involved in the Simpson project, donating many hours of labor to update the electrical system, move switches so Simpson could reach them and install ceiling fans with remote capability. Two of Tidwell’s suppliers—Dulles Electric and Burgess Lighting—donated all the electrical supplies. “I was able to tap those two resources for the materials, and they were happy to do it,” Tidwell said. “The ceiling fans alone probably cost $2,000, so that was a big help.”
Gonsalves says he is sometimes amazed by the generosity of local building communities, who are not only willing to donate time and materials but often go above and beyond what’s asked of them. “It’s tremendous what we see across the country,” he said. “We’ve put granite countertops in more often than not because companies call up and want to donate granite countertops.”
And the national recognition keeps growing. President George W. Bush personally thanked Gonsalves in a 2004 speech at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and in late June of this year, the U.S. Defense Department recognized HFOT—as well as Simonton and the McKee Group—with the Office of the Secretary of Defense Medal for Exceptional Public Service. “It just adds that much to our credibility. When people look and see you’ve received an award from the Department of Defense, they know you’ve been checked out,” Gonsalves said.
Going forward, Gonsalves hopes the organization’s growing reputation will help make the process of building homes faster and easier. “We’ve been able to see what works and what doesn’t, and when we get into an area and ask for help, we can show them what we’ve done in other places,” he said. “Not everyone in the building industry is in a position to help us, but a lot are—and they do. We’re grateful for that.”