Giving back is what Homes for Our Troops (HFOT), a nonprofit organization based in Taunton, Mass., is all about. Building homes, building hopes, building dreams for the best of the best of us, who gave a big part of themselves on battlefields overseas.
In December 2007 HFOT donated five new specially adapted homes to wounded soldiers in Delaware, Colorado, Connecticut, Texas and New Jersey. The Dec. 27 ceremony for Army Specialist James Benoit in Wharton, N.J., marked the fifth home dedication in December. It also was the 22nd home completed by the organization since October 2005. With the dedication of Benoit’s home, the way has been cleared for another five wounded service members to be taken off the waiting list.
Thousands of donors, many volunteer contractors and sub-contractors, corporate partners and local community involvement have made it possible for HFOT to provide these homes to our nation’s soldiers completely free of charge.
Sgt. Jason Nielson, his wife Krista and their three young children are now settled in to a HFOT home in Milford, Del.
“I can’t describe how wonderful it is to know my family will be secure and have a home,” said Nielson. “We’ve got a lot of bills and it’s good to know we don’t have to worry about this.”
Nielson was on patrol in October 2005 in Baghdad when a sniper’s bullet pierced his spine. Like so many other severely wounded soldiers, Nielson returned home to many months of painful therapy and the unknowns of life in a wheelchair.
The Nielsons, along with representatives from HFOT, Lacrosse Homes and dozens of subcontractors celebrated a milestone for the family with a housewarming party in a home that was given to the Nielsons without cost.
“It’s a great accomplishment for us that we were able to hand over five houses to our veterans in the month of December. In the giving spirit of the season, where so many of our donors have given to support our mission, it’s rewarding for us give so much back to our deserving veterans in this special month,” said Kirt Rebello, vice president and chief projects officer of HFOT.
The homes built by HFOT provide the primary benefit of giving veterans handicap accessible homes specially designed to meet their needs. They also take the burden of finding appropriate homes off the shoulders of the veterans and their families at this difficult time in their lives, promoting a more stable future and a better chance for physical and emotional recovery.
These homes also give back to the veterans some of the personal independence they lost due to their injuries and it allows their families to deal with their day-to-day challenges in homes adapted to their specific needs.
John Gonsalves of Taunton, Mass., founded HFOT in 2004 when he was looking for an organization in which he could volunteer his 20 years of experience as a contractor to help wounded veterans with their home modification needs.
He learned that no such organization existed, so he founded one. Since that time, Gonsalves and his organization have worked nationwide to complete and/or commit to 38 home building/renovation projects.
“Our motto is, essentially, ’Homes for Our Troops,’” said Gonsalves. “It’s not a [politically] left thing, it’s not a right thing, it’s the right thing. As Americans, we have a responsibility to these soldiers and their families.”
Knocking on Doors for Help
It has been this way since the group’s first project nearly four years ago, which started with people in the construction industry knocking on doors in order to break down barriers, and the best workers responding for free.
“HFOT’s first ground-breaking ceremony was a very big deal for our organization,” said Dawn Teixeira, vice president and chief information officer in Taunton. “It was the first home we had ever undertaken and we felt it was a great accomplishment.”
Teixeira added that the first project was a “great showing for our donors who put their trust in our mission,” a mission that germinated merely as an idea by a local contractor to help veterans when they came home.
A few days before that scheduled 2005 groundbreaking, a home for Sergeant Peter Damon in Middleboro, Mass., the company that had promised to do the site work didn’t show up. HFOT founder Gonsalves then went door to door in Middleboro, asking for help with the site work so that the organization could hold the ceremony.
“John walked into Tim Hashem’s office at his TNT Excavating Company in Middleboro, told him what we were doing, who we were helping and what we needed and Tim did not hesitate to say, ’Yes,’” said Teixeira. “The same day, Tim brought his heavy equipment to the site and did the work we needed.”
Hashem, in the giving spirit typical among area contractors, also did the septic system work and asked his constituents in the area to donate fill, trucking and materials, which they soon did.
“Tim really saved the day for us. The generosity and caring that he showed that day for a complete stranger, made me realize what makes this country great,” said Gonsalves.
“I never thought I would be so fortunate to get involved with such a great group of people at HFOT,” said Tim Hashem. “I am very thankful John stopped by my office that day. Myself being involved with HFOT is my way of saying thanks to all the soldiers who are fighting for our country.”
Hashem did the same thing for Sergeant Brian Fountaine in Plymouth, Mass., whose home will hopefully be complete in January 2008. Fountaine needs a place of his own near his original home that will allow him to move freely and become independent, while being close to his family in Dorchester.
Survives Five Explosions
Fountaine’s sacrifice has been profound, excruciatingly exacted from his body by two large bombs on a dusty road a dozen miles north of Baghdad. This was Fountaine’s second tour of duty, for which he had volunteered. During his first deployment, his unit routinely came under attack from mortars and rifle fire. But he continued to volunteer for mission after dangerous mission. Although the potential for death or severe injury was everywhere, Fountaine explained, “I accepted the fact that I was a soldier. And I expected this to happen, either a loss of limb or a loss of life.”
While serving with the First Brigade Combat Team of the Fourth Infantry Division on June 8, Fountaine, a 24-year-old tank commander from Dorchester, Mass., came under fierce attack, which resulted in the loss of both his lower legs. When the two bombs detonated under the Humvee carrying Fountaine, it was the fifth time that the soldier had survived an improvised explosive device.
He knew, as soon as he found himself face-first in the dirt beside the truck, that he had been hurt badly. “I knew I would become some sort of an amputee,” said Fountaine, massaging the stumps of his legs, amputated 10 inches below the knees. “I won’t be able to feel the grass between my feet or the sand under my toes, but the important thing is I still have my life.”
Vets Helping Wounded Vets
As a way of giving back to their brethren, some veterans also have helped HFOT. One such project took place in Roxboro, N.C., where the whole group worked with ABC’s “Extreme Makeover Home Edition” to remodel a home for Corporal Bobby Isaacs in just 48 hours.
All of the men worked through the 48 hours with little or no sleep to get this job completed, smiling the whole way, according to Teixeira.
Isaacs, 2nd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), Fort Campbell, Ky., joined the armed forces after Sept. 11 and was deployed to Iraq in spring of 2003.
Ten months later, Isaacs’ life changed forever when a roadside bomb ripped apart his convoy as it traveled near Mosul.
“It shattered all the bones and severed my femoral artery, and I bled out,” said Isaacs. “I think they lost me a couple of times, actually.”
Isaacs initially was given an imminent death retirement because he wasn’t expected to recover from his injuries. After 37 operations, Isaacs has decided he wants to go to college so he can work with amputees.
“I want to use my situation in a positive way,” said Isaacs. “I can share my experience to help somebody.”
Stepping Up for the Cause
In addition to Hashem, HFOT has an impressive list of other Massachusetts contractors who “have stepped up for us, big time more than once when we called them. We would love to have this type of response across the country for our veteran home building/remodeling projects,” said Teixeira.
Among the contractors are:
• Sudbury Granite, Sudbury, Mass., which donates top of the line granite countertops for all HFOT New England projects;
• PJ Kennedy & Sons of Boston, which donated complete HVAC systems and the labor to install them for multiple homes in Massachusetts;
• Kinsman Electric of Wareham, Mass., which donated supplies and labor for multiple homes in Massachusetts;
• The Carpenter’s Union, which has been a huge help in supplying labor to build the homes; and
• Clifford & Galvin of West Bridgewater, Mass., which has supplied the materials and labor for the drywall in HFOT’s Massachusetts homes.
HFOT expects to take on 20 to 30 additional home building projects in 2008 and is always in need of monetary contributions, donations of in-kind materials and professional labor and services. For more information visit www.homesforourtroops.org. CEG