The Fuller Center for Housing was not founded as a veterans service organization. Yet, with so many veterans struggling to find decent housing or make repairs to existing homes because of disabilities or financial issues, Fuller Center covenant partners across the nation often find themselves partnering with veterans and their families.
One of the reasons The Fuller Center is a natural fit to partner with veterans is that it is not a handout. Even well-meaning handouts have a way of stealing a person’s dignity and pride, and our nation’s veterans are a proud group, as they should be.
Veterans who partner with The Fuller Center for new homes are asked to perform sweat equity and make affordable, zero-percent-interest mortgage payments just like all of our new home partners. And those who partner with us for smaller Greater Blessing repairs are asked, though not obligated, to pay back the costs of the repairs as they are able. Payments made by Fuller Center homeowner partners go into a Fund for Humanity to help others have simple, decent homes.
As we honor the men and women who have defended our nation, we’re taking a look at a few areas where Fuller Center covenant partners are working with our veterans. (Click here to see a more detailed look at The Fuller Center’s work with veterans.)
Desert Communities Fuller Center for Housing
After serving for 20 years as a Navy corpsman, Lloyd Tilch came home to face other challenges — his own disability, his wife Debbie’s ongoing cancer battle and raising their grandson Cody, who is now 16 and has suffered a litany of health issues throughout his young life. The medical bills have left the Tilches unable to even dream of owning a decent home.
This weekend, in an event that has become the talk of miltary-town Twentynine Palms, Calif., the Desert Communities Fuller Center for Housing is not only partnering with the Tilches to build a simple, decent 1,400-square-foot, three-bedroom home, but they also are doing it from the ground up in just three days.
“We’ve done it in one day; this is relaxed,” said Desert Communities President Jeff Moritz, referring to his days leading an area Habitat for Humanity affilitate. “It takes a whole heck of a lot of organization. Our Director of Construction Mike Robinson is a developer, a high-end builder. He was the project manager for our one-day build when we were affiliated with Habitat. In my life with Habitat, I did a couple of five-day builds, so I get what it’s about.”
Moritz said the city of Twentynine Palms has embraced the project, waiving inspection and construction fees and even waiving the requirement that Robinson get a construction license from the city. The city is even setting up bleachers for the event.
“It’s going to be a big party,” Moritz said. But he added that the event is not about the house, but instead about the family going into it.
“Their medical bills are astronomical,” he said. “They basically have been wiped out. They are two of the sweetest people I’ve met in a very long time. They’re not ashamed to tell their story, and they’re so grateful for what we’re doing.”
With the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center based at Twentynine Palms, Desert Communities has found many veterans in need of The Fuller Center’s helping hand.
“When we were forming, we looked at needs in the area and what we found was elderly and veterans,” Moritz said, explaining why they have a specific focus on veterans. “I’m a 13-year Army veteran myself, so when everybody agreed to do that, I was happy. But it was not my decision. It was the team that decided.”
Northwest Louisiana Fuller Center for Housing
Like Moritz, Lee Jeter also is a retired veteran now leading a Fuller Center covenant partner. Jeter, the Executive Director of the Northwest Louisiana Fuller Center for Housing based in Shreveport, is a veteran of the first Desert Storm and served 21 years in the Marines before retiring in 1997. Fittingly, November 11 is both Veterans Day and Jeter’s birthday.
“I just think it’s a natural fit for our organization,” said Jeter, whose covenant partner does not focus solely on veterans but has built in partnership with many, including last year’s four-house Veterans Build in Shreveport, which drew celebrity support from donor Roger Waters of Pink Floyd fame and volunteer work from Grammy-winner John Mayer.
“There are two reasons,” Jeter explained. “We have a strong, strong veterans presence in our community, and we get outstanding support from our military community because we have Barksdale Air Force Base right in our backyard. You see veterans every day because of their strong presence and the retirees in our community. You see their need. Their need ties in with our primary mission to build decent and affordable homes.
“When we’re able to do something for those people who have made the sacrifice in serving our country and realize that we have a lot of wounded veterans — including the wounds we can’t see — it makes us want to make sure that they get a special emphasis in our housing ministry and our program,” he added. “So we try to do everything we can to support them.”
The four veterans with whom The Fuller Center partnered for last year’s Veterans Build remain actively involved in their work, Jeter said.
“We have a relationship with those four veterans,” he said. “We are constantly in contact with them, and they are constantly in contact with us. They want to know what we’re doing because they’re so grateful for the blessing that they have received that they want to continue to give. They want to continue to serve and be an example for other veterans.”
In addition to the veterans The Fuller Center has partnered with in Shreveport are two veterans in Bossier City, including Charles Brown, who was once homeless, as was his wife, Vernita. Charles Brown is not only grateful, but he also directs other veterans to The Fuller Center when they are pointed in the right direction.
“I tell them, ‘They’re not going to give you anything,’” Brown said to Jeter. “’So if you’re looking for somebody to give you something, then don’t even pick up the phone and waste your time calling them. You’ve got to earn it. You’ve got to attend the classes. You’ve got to do the sweat equity. And if you earn it, they’re going to help you. But it’s not a freebie, it’s not a handout. You’ve got to earn it.’”
While that kind of blunt talk may rub fans of handouts the wrong way, Jeter said it resonates with veterans.
“That’s what every veteran wants,” Jeter said. “Every veteran wants to have some skin in the game, so to speak. They’re not used to people just giving them anything. They want to earn their keep. Veterans have pride. They don’t want anybody looking down on them with pity. All they want is a fair opportunity — and I can speak to that as a 21-year Marine myself. All they want is an opportunity to prove themselves. That’s all they need, and that’s what we’re providing — that opportunity to become whole again.”
Illinois Valley Fuller Center for Housing
Though it is a relatively new Fuller Center covenant partner, having formed only last year, the Illinois Valley Fuller Center for Housing in Peoria has done 27 home repairs and 72 yard cleanups since Nov. 1, 2013.
Normally, Fuller Center for Housing covenant partners are focused on, well, housing. But Illinois Valley introduced themselves to the valley communities by doing the cleanups for veterans. Not only did it get their name out there as a new nonprofit in town, but it also forged crucial trust with local veterans.
“There is a huge trust factor involved,” Illinois Valley President Greg Woith said of working with local veterans. “Some of them have been burned. They don’t want to ask people they don’t know because they’re afraid and some have had bad experiences. That has evolved over the last six months or so. When they learn that our mission is to help veterans, they like that. We’re building recognition. As the word gets out, the community definitely likes what we’re doing.”
The first 11 days of November, Illinois Valley has a program to foster not only trust but also appreciation. “Joining Hands to Thank Veterans” sends teams out to thank local veterans with plaques and gift cards donated by area businesses. On Veterans Day, the Peoria Rivermen hockey team is presenting one of the thank-yous to a Vietnam veteran who also happens to be a huge hockey fan.
“They’re going to bring the team bus, and the whole team is going to come out and present it,” Woith said.
As for why Illinois Valley chose to focus on veterans, it’s simple, Woith says.
“We just saw a need,” he said. “There are 20,000 veterans in the three-county area that we serve. If just 1 percent of those needed help with home repairs, that’s 200 right there. And we know it’s more than 1 percent. They’re just not used to asking for help. Most of these folks that we’re doing things for are World War II vets, and they’re pretty rugged guys and kept their houses and yards up. But now they’re 88 and 90 years old and not able to do that.
“I think we’ve found a niche,” Woith added. “There are a lot of services here in the tri-country area, but there weren’t any doing what we’re doing. With older veterans — and we’re not locked into older veterans by any means but that’s just the population that we’ve tended to serve — it didn’t seem like there were many programs out there for them.”
With community awareness, trust and fundraising increasing, Illinois Valley will continue to focus on small home repairs but doing even more of them. So far, Woith said much of the work has involved wheelchair ramps, windows, porches, weatherization and furnace checks, including a recent one that discovered a carbon monoxide leak.
“The home repairs are somewhat small, but for the veterans who can’t do it themselves, it makes a big difference,” he said.