Making a difference at home
Weston resident Vicki Thomas is no longer working for a television network, no longer carrying a business card that has the words "vice president" in the job title, but she is as happy as can be. Now the media relations person for Homes For Our Troops -- a Taunton, Mass.-based nonprofit organization whose mission is to build specially adapted barrier-free homes for severely injured veterans who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan -- Thomas is a part of something that's sole mission is to improve people's lives.
"It's the most rewarding experience I ever had in my entire working career," she said. "It just makes you feel good when you see in communities throughout the U.S. what's right in America as all these people come forward to say, "How can I help?"
All specially adapted homes are built at no cost to the veteran thanks to donations from thousands of individuals, foundation grants, corporate sponsors, professional tradespeople and generous support from countless volunteers.
Thomas began volunteering for the organization a little more than four years ago when her husband, Steve, lent his talents to help build a home in Coventry. Steve had previously volunteered for an Extreme Makeover project in Bridgeport. That site had all the fanfare in the world.
The build in Coventry -- which wasn't for a television show -- was much more low-key, Vicki Thomas said. There were no air-conditioned trailers, no sponsors venue, no stars, no media hype.
The home wasn't built in a week for television entertainment. It took 120 days. Many of the professionals who volunteer their time building homes for the young veterans are skilled tradespeople who are former veterans themselves, according to Thomas.
Long before a key presentation takes place, there is what's called a build-brigade. It's a three-day event where the volunteers take a house that's nothing more than a foundation and "put the walls up, the trusses, the sheathing, the roof shingles, windows, doors, siding and garage door to make the house weather-tight." That work, under normal circumstances, can often take as long as six months, according to Thomas.
While skilled professionals build the homes, people in the communities where a home is erected get involved as well. Residents will cook or buy food for the crew, Boy and Girl Scouts will bring water or coffee to the workers and sweep the streets to keep the construction area clean, and donate money or materials. Some of the people who volunteer their time have been out for work for months, yet they don't hesitate to help these military men and women in need.
To receive a barrier-free home, injured veterans or their families fill out an application online at www.homesforourtroops.org. When veterans is selected after a thorough review, they are then flown to Taunton, Mass., where they pick out their home from a series of designs and floor plans. They also get to pick out where they would like to live.
Homes For Our Troops purchases the land and then finds a general contractor willing to provide the materials and professional tradespeople to build the home at no cost. A little more than a week ago, Thomas was in Macomb, Mich., for a key presentation. House keys were presented to Specialist Alex Knapp, who lost both of his legs in an IED (improvised explosive device) explosion in March 2008 in Iraq. Knapp was on his final mission before going on leave when tragedy struck.
The Homes For Our Troops homes are built with wider hallways, bigger doors, modified showers, a lift care system on the stairs and many other features that make the homes much more conducive to someone in a wheelchair, and who may even be a triple amputee, according to Thomas. The halls are wide enough to allow for someone in a wheelchair to turn 360 degrees. Some homes are equipped with technology that is voice-activated. In some homes, infrared beams open and close doors.
The key presentations include the placing of a flagpole on the front of the property with a flag that been a part of the person's unit or has flown over the nation's capital. The color guard, said Thomas, also is part of the presentation.
"I never make it through a key ceremony without shedding tears," she said, adding, "When you realize somebody's going to spend the rest of their life in a wheelchair, you also realize that the family's injured as well, [because they will have to care for the veteran]."
However, the modified homes make life significantly better for everyone.
"This is where you're totally making a difference in rebuilding the lives of severely injured veterans that served and sacrificed so much on behalf of our country," said Thomas.
By the time each respective build is over, the community has gotten to know the Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran that has moved in. One Vietnam veteran told Thomas that he and his fellow soldiers never got "this kind of treatment when we got out."
"They often say to me, `I am happy to be donating my time because I do not want to see any of our returning veterans not supported for their service and sacrifice.' "
Over the years, Homes For Our Troops has turned over the keys to 43 completed barrier-free houses to severely injured veterans and there are 30 more homes in various stages of construction going on throughout the United States. The only specially adapted homes in the Nutmeg State are both located in Coventry.
Anyone wishing to support this organization should visit www.homesforourtroops.org.