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Women’s Program Featured in the Hampshire Daily Gazette

Daily Hampshire Gazette | Tuesday, November 29, 2016 | Sarah Crosby

SOLDIERING ON WITH SOLDIER ON: PROGRAM HELPS WOMEN VETERANS BUILD LIVES

Sara Scoco, director of Soldier On Women's Program, left, and Soldier On resident Silva Petrus listen to announcements during a Nov. 17, 2016 house meeting at Soldier On's transitional housing for female veterans on the Veterans Affairs campus in Leeds.

Sara Scoco, director of Soldier On Women’s Program, left, and Soldier On resident Silva Petrus listen to announcements during a Nov. 17, 2016 house meeting at Soldier On’s transitional housing for female veterans on the Veterans Affairs campus in Leeds.

A rocky path led veteran Mary Wilson to the doorstep of the Soldier On Women’s Program. “The gift of desperation,” she calls it.

 

A former U.S. Marine Corps private, Wilson in July moved into the transitional housing program located on the grounds of the VA medical center. After years of struggle, she says, she finally feels like she has a base on which to build a life.

“It’s hard to ask for help, but yet Soldier On is an environment where, honestly, I can ask for help and not feel weak doing it,” she said. “I’m treated like a human being here. I’m not a number filling a bed.”

Soldier On is a private nonprofit organization focused on ending homelessness among veterans. The group has been offering services to all veterans — including women — since 1994. But in more recent years, they have emphasized programming that caters specifically to the needs of female veterans.

For those veterans, the 16-bedroom house provides a place to heal from wounds inflicted not just by the nation’s enemies but, too often, by fellow soldiers. Surrounded by a caring staff and female veterans carrying similar scars, Wilson and others begin to find their way.

A dream shattered

Wilson, a spunky 29-year-old most recently donning neon blue hair, joined the Marine Corps when she was 20 and celebrated her 21st birthday in military training. As demanding as it was, she felt like she’d found her niche.

She joined to escape “a life that was going nowhere,” said Wilson, who grew up in East Longmeadow. Stuck in a post-high school rut, she found herself experimenting with cocaine and involved in a relationship that was mutually abusive.

“I figured that if I was going to get my ass kicked, I might as well get paid for it,” she said of her choice to enlist. At first, she struggled to get clean in order to qualify but was eventually able to do so.

In the Marines, Wilson found the mental and physical challenges she had been looking for. Her squadron, which was based at Cherry Point, N.C. but sometimes deployed to Arizona, was responsible for loading and unloading bombs from jets.

“For once in my life, I had to study,” she said. “It wasn’t just ‘Things blow up and go boom.’ There’s actually a math and a science; a rhyme and a reason to everything,” Wilson said.

But less than two years later, that new-found promise was cut short.

Wilson says she was sexually assaulted by a male superior in the Marines, after experiencing what she described as endless “sick, graphic and mean” communications — text messages, voicemails and emails.

“There were red flags ahead of time” she said in an interview, her eyes growing hollow.

Her boss would sometimes cut her shifts short, insist on buying her drinks at military outings and walk her back to her barracks alone.

Wilson said she knew something was wrong, but didn’t press the issue because she didn’t want to upset him and, consequently, jeopardize her career.

“He has a crush on me, it isn’t going to go anywhere,” she told herself. But then the officer began sending everyone else home early so he and Wilson would be left alone.

“One night he wanted yes, I wanted no, and that was the first time,” she said of the first time she was raped. Wilson said the assault occurred two more times over the course of a month.

By the last time, Wilson couldn’t look at herself. She decided to run.

“I got in my car and I drove. And I just drove and I drove and I drove — (11-plus hours) straight back to Massachusetts,” she said. After roughly 20 days, she decided to return and face the situation.

When she arrived, she couldn’t bring herself to drive onto the Cherry Point base.

“I must have circled 100 times,” Wilson recalled. When the questions came about where she’d been, she turned over her phone, with all the messages, to management.

Rather than providing support, Wilson said, her fellow Marines called her a “lying b****,” for “disrespecting and disgracing a decorated Marine with a family.”

That began her discharge process.

The Judge Advocate General’s Corps made a deal with Wilson that, if she testified against her assaulter, they’d make sure her record showed a general discharge under honorable conditions.

She accepted. But the troubles didn’t end.

Wilson said some of her peers, whom she had previously considered friends, stopped talking to her. For the next several months, she was instructed to sit on a chair outside her ordnance shop during working hours.

Wilson was eventually discharged, but had to return to testify at a court martial on her birthday – Feb. 15, 2011. She found a death threat on her car and listened as some of her friends testified against her, she recalled.

Still, the man who had assaulted her was found guilty, she said.

When Wilson returned to Massachusetts following court, she says, she lost it.

She tried therapy, but couldn’t bring herself to talk about the traumatic experience. Instead, she turned back to drugs — this time, “grabbing onto it with everything,” she said.

“If I didn’t have drugs, I probably would have killed myself,” she said.

Wilson found herself in a downward spiral. She developed a heavy Percocet habit; sometimes turning an entire $2,000 paycheck in one day to purchase the drug.

She asked her parents for help and began signing over her paychecks to them to curb her spending. When they thwarted her attempts to buy drugs, she said she began “stealing anything that wasn’t bolted down in their house.”

As the months passed, Wilson found herself in a serious car accident involving alcohol, addicted to heroin, and smuggling guns for gang members.

“Anything I could make money on, I did,” she said.

Her father, concerned for his daughter’s well-being, used a Massachusetts law known as Section 35 to have her involuntarily committed. Section 35 “permits the courts to involuntarily commit someone whose alcohol or drug use puts themselves or others at risk,” according to Mass.Gov.

The first time she was picked up by authorities in East Longmeadow and sent to a treatment facility for 20-plus days. Wilson was released, and began using heroin that same day. Her father filed for her to be committed, again.

The second time Wilson was hospitalized, she said she was facing warrants for drug-fueled behavior such as receiving stolen property, check fraud and breaking and entering. She agreed to go to a halfway house in Springfield to avoid jail time — but, after a month, left the program.

The scenario played out again and again, worsening each time.

She was living in a tent, having violated probation, when she was arrested and sent to the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Center in Chicopee in 2014. She served multiple stints of jail time there during the next year, exchanging some time for inpatient treatment and, each time she was released, failing to check in with a probation officer.

Sara Scoco, the director of the women’s program at Soldier On, visited Wilson in jail at the plea of her father.

“She told me to f*** off,” Scoco said. Wilson said she told Scoco to save the bed for somebody who wanted it.

Finding safe haven

The Soldier On Women’s Program is a complex operation focused on giving female veterans back their sense of control.

Scoco said veteran women are four times more likely to become homeless due to challenges faced in accessing services, a tendency to isolate themselves and, often dealing with the aftermath of sexual trauma.

“The VA is an extremely male-dominated arena,” she said. “It’s often assumed when a woman walks in that she’s the sister of, the wife of, the daughter of a veteran. Not the veteran herself. That’s unacceptable and we need to change that.”

Soldier On seeks to fill this gap for female veterans through a variety of programming, such as one-on-one meetings with clinicians and social workers, goal-setting and self esteem groups, employment and educational opportunities, alcohol and substance abuse programs and wellness, fitness and art therapy classes.

Scoco estimates roughly 80 percent of the house residents have experienced military sexual trauma and have not been able to address that until arriving at the Soldier On Women’s Program, which is run by a female staff.

Assisting the women in making connections to their communities outside Soldier On is also of big emphasis for the staff.

“We’re helping to link them to all the services they might not have known existed,”Scoco said, adding that many veterans are not VA-eligible when they arrive but are when they leave. “The ultimate goal is getting them back into the community, and what that looks like is different for everyone.”

But in order for the program to be successful, Scoco said, the women must be ready to make a change.

Ready to rebuild

After two years of running from the law, Wilson decided she was ready to make that change.

In the winter of 2016 she was prostituting herself and living with a client, when she decided to turn herself in to authorities.

“I was just so sick of living, feeling dirty every day and the things I had to do,” she said.

Her sister had reached out around that time with a request to cook Wilson dinner — in her own home — as a celebration of her birthday.

The gesture came at a time when Wilson had come to feel that no one trusted her. It had a deep impact on her, she said.

“I just kept hearing ‘stop running, stop running,’” Wilson said of that day. “Even in receipts and newspapers, I couldn’t see any words besides ‘stop running.’”

She called her father on a Friday and promised to turn herself in that Monday, if he’d come pick her up. He did.

That weekend, father and daughter both met with Soldier On. Wilson planned to request parole so she could move to the transitional housing program after a year in jail.

But while awaiting trial in the Chicopee jail, Wilson was offered an alternative to incarceration.

The Western Massachusetts Veterans Treatment Court, a specialty court based in Holyoke, offered her 18 months of active participation in conjunction with recovery at Soldier On, instead of serving her time in a jail cell.

“It’s really more about building them up than it is penalizing them,” said Scoco of the treatment court.

After just four months of jail time and a few months of inpatient recovery, Wilson moved into her new home at Soldier On.

During a recent visit to veterans court, Wilson took the stand and spoke of her recovery process to the judge and other participants. Tears filled her eyes.

“I didn’t think it was possible,” she said, citing the nine-plus months she’s been sober and clean.

“For the first time in her life, something’s clicking,” Scoco said of Wilson’s success in a later interview. “Something’s working.”

Long-term challenge

While most veterans stay at Soldier On for one to two years, some women there need longer-term support, Scoco said.

LouAnn Hazelwood, 61, has lived there off and on since 2012. Soldier On offered her a place to belong after she left an abusive marriage of nearly two decades.

Hazelwood, a U.S. Army veteran who enlisted in 1976, says she suffered sexual trauma both in and out of the military.

At 21, she saw the military as a way to escape what she called “a very dysfunctional household.”

“I used to ride my bike around the Holiday Inn, looking at all the different license plates and thinking about what it would be like to go (to them),” she said.

But she did not find that safe place with the Army. When she arrived at Soldier On decades later, Hazelwood did not even speak. She was full of fear from her traumatic past.

“There was a time I didn’t even feel comfortable in my own skin,” she said.

But, Hazelwood adds, “I don’t feel that way, anymore.”

She, too, has flourished with the program.

Hazelwood now sings in a local church choir, crochets pieces for her housemates and community members, volunteers and makes paintings — many of which have been showcased at regional organizations.

Scoco and Hazelwood agree that, in order to continue doing well, she will always need some kind of structure in her life. To solve this issue for her, and others, Soldier On is in the initial stages of planning eight to 10 units of permanent housing for female veterans, to be located in Pittsfield.

“Some women go out into the community and, in six or eight months, they’re relapsing,” Scoco said. “Right now, (the long-term housing) is the missing piece.”

A happy surprise

Wilson and her peers, including Hazelwood, will soon embark on a new journey together — on a path not yet forged by Soldier On. In approximately six months, the house will welcome Wilson’s newborn child, their youngest resident by far.

The pregnancy came as a surprise to both Wilson and the house members.

At first, she was scared and questioned her suitability to become a parent. But the more she sat with the idea, it seemed to her that there might be a reason she was pregnant.

“Once I heard the baby’s heartbeat, for the first time, it was ‘game on,’” she said. The child’s father is also a veteran.

So far, Wilson’s pregnancy has only motivated her further to work on her recovery.

“It’s not about me,” she said. “If I mess up, it’s going to affect this kid.”

Scoco said that, although Soldier On has never taken on a new baby, she’s thrilled to offer Wilson support when she needs it most.

“It’s probably not the best time in the world for her to be pregnant, but she is,” Scoco said. “So we’re going to help her deal with it.”

Wilson’s housemates have also rallied to celebrate the new life growing inside her. Scoco is confident that the women in the house will make a positive impact on the baby.

“The hurt they’ve been through runs so deep that they can just nurture and support one another like I’ve never seen before,” she said.

In several weeks, the ladies will be throwing a gender party to reveal the baby’s sex to the expecting mother.

“There’s a sisterhood here that is nowhere else,” Wilson said.

But the staff are the ones who make recovery possible, according to her.

“They jump through hoopsof fire, for me,” she said of Scoco and wellness director Stephanie Ovitt. “They move mountains. My dream is just a dream without them.”

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TD Charitable Foundation – Bring Change Campaign

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Soldier On was privileged enough to be the beneficiary of the TD Bank November Bring Change program at their West Street and Merrill Road store locations in Pittsfield, MA.

The program ran from November 1st-18th. On Friday, November 18th Soldier On was presented with a $5,580.00 donation from the campaign. Residents and staff from Soldier On went to the West Street location to accept the donation.

TD Bank through its charitable giving arm, the TD Charitable Foundation carries a legacy of supporting non-profit organizations. Since its inception in 202, the foundation has contributed over $160 million in grant funding to organizations in the communities where TD works, lives, and does business.

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2016 Veterans Day Weekend

Soldier On was busy during the weekend of Veterans Day.  Below is a recap of the various events that Soldier On participated in.

Friday November 11th

Massachusetts
Friday morning Soldier On staff and residents walked in the Pittsfield and Northampton Parades.

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Pittsfield – Veterans Day Parade

Northampton – Veterans Day Parade

 

 

Soldier On’s kitchen held a prime-rib lunch at the West Housatonic Street location in Pittsfield. In addition the kitchen partook in Springside Rehabilitation & Skilled Care Center‘s Chili Cook-Off. Local restaurants participated in the cook-off: Friends Grille, Hot Dog Ranch, Matt Reilly’s Pub, Patrick’s Pub, PortSmitt’s Lakeway, Zucchini’s Restaurant, and Zuke’s Soups and Variety. The winners were: 1st Place Kim Brophy, 2nd Sprinside, 3rd Soldier On.  All proceeds raised were donated to Soldier On.

 

 

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Left to Right: Soldier On Resident Louann, Women’s Director Sara Scoco, and Soldier On Resident Corinne

Friday afternoon Soldier On former and current residents; Kevin, Russell, Louann, and Corinne spoke at Norman Rockwell Museum’s Veterans Day: Afloat and Ashore: Rockwell’s Soldiers.

 

 

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Friday evening Sarah Polidore and Casey DiCicco attended a veterans resource fair at Westfield State University. The fair was held prior to the football game against Western Connecticut State University. In addition to it being military appreciation night it was also senior night.

 

 

Mississippi

SSVF staff Barbara Parker-Thornton, Preston Williams, Greg Morgan, Robert Payne, Sheron Brown-Gorden, Alvin Buckley, Margaret Johnson and Michael Cohen served Veterans Day lunch to the participants in the Soldier On Statewide Incarcerated Veterans Program at Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl, Mississippi.

Additionally, Alvin Buckley participated in the annual Veterans Day Liberty Luncheon at the Vicksburg Convention Center in Vicksburg.

 

 

New Jersey

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Left to Right: Jill Lombardozzi, Jose Bracero, Traci Herrman and Jennifer Marshall

On Friday evening SSVF staff  Jill Lombardozzi, Jose Bracero, Traci Herrman and Jennifer Marshall attended the GI Go Fund Veterans Day Gala in Newark.

 

 

Saturday, November 12th

Massachusetts
Raymour & Flanigan in West Springfield presented Soldier On with a $500 check from their Community Event Outreach Program. In addition the store held a raffle where a $5 donation to Soldier On would allow the customer to be entered into a drawing for a $200.00 gift certificate to Raymour & Flanigan. Soldier On staffed a table during the peak shopping hours on Saturday; Sarah Polidore and Casey DiCicco worked in the morning while Sabrina Willard and Netshari Ortiz worked in the afternoon.

 

 

New York

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Chris Shortell and Ilian Galan

The 9th Annual Central New York Veterans Parade and Expo was held on Saturday. CNY SSVF staff William Brown, Ilian Galan, and Chris Shortell attended the expo which was in the Center of Progress Building in Syracuse.

 

 

Jessica Brooks & Meadow McDowell

Jessica Brooks & Meadow McDowell

Seneca County Veterans Service Agency hosted “Stand Down 2016” at the VFW in Waterloo where Jessica Brooks and Meadow McDowell set up a table at the event.

 

 

Sunday, November 13th 

Massachusetts
The American Legion Women’s Auxiliary Unit #155 in Dalton held their annual Veterans Dinner Dance.  In addition to Soldier On residents attending the following staff were present: Sam Bennett, Sandi Lussier (her husband was in attendance), Steve Como, and Sarah Polidore (her husband was in attendance).

 

New York

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Albany County Sheriff’s Office presented Soldier On with the Patriotism Recognition Award at the Siena College men’s basketball game against Cornell University. Dominick Sondrini, New York SSVF Supervisor, accepted the award and spoke on behalf of Soldier On. Prior to the game Katrina Middleton set up a table providing information on Soldier On in the main concourse of the Times Union Center.

 

 

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Berkshire Bank check presentation at Kiwanis Park of Honor

On Saturday, October 29th Berkshire Bank presented Soldier On with a $6,675.00 donation derived from the Military Checking Account Promotion.
Bruce Buckley, Cory Bazinet, and Jack Downing

Bruce Buckley, Cory Bazinet, and Jack Downing

Artcle in iBerkshires.com
Kiwanis’ Park of Honor Program Continues to Grow
Andy McKeever
In its third year, the Kiwanis Club of Pittsfield has gotten even more flag sponsors and has filled Park Square and even expanded to a park in Sheffield.
The organization has sold more than 740 flags in honor of veterans, the profits of which will go to college scholarships for children and grandchildren of veterans.
“The best part of the project is it is growing and it keeps growing,” said Chairman Real Gadoury, who said more than $24,000 will be raised through the local effort.
“Now we have at least five states where they do the same thing we do here.”
In Park Square, 640 flags are flying, each with its own dedication to a veteran. Another 100 will be in Sheffield. But, all of the money raised will stay right in the Berkshires, helping the families of veterans here.
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“This is all about the veterans,” said local Kiwanis Club President Jack Nogueira. “We are a nation of the free but we will not be able to maintain that unless we have these men and women fighting to keep the enemy away.”
The Park of Honor program started three years ago with the hope of selling 200 flags. The club sold 523, which allowed it to give out a dozen $1,000 scholarships. Last year, 670 flags were sold translating to $24,000 in scholarships. Now, the club has surpassed that figure. Next year, Gadoury said he hopes to see this program be replicated in more cities and towns in Berkshire County.
Mayor Linda Tyer says of all the compliments and praise she hears about the city, the flags are the most talked about. The flags are flown in the park throughout the month of November.
“I am proud of our city and our citizens,” she said, after telling a story of a wounded veteran who despite losing a foot was able to climb Mount Everest.
The story focused on the family of that man and Tyer used it to illustrate how families of veterans have “profound experiences” — something she knows firsthand from being the daughter of a career military man.
The program of speakers on Saturday kicked off the monthlong honor. Additionally, Berkshire Bank presented a $6,675 donation to Soldier On. The figure was derived from $25 per veteran who opened a checking account with the bank.
“If anything good can come from war, it is that this happens for guys like me,” said Cory Bazinet, a veteran presenting the check from the Berkshire Bank Foundation said.
Soldier On is a transitional housing development for homeless veterans. CEO Jack Downing used the ceremony to announce that Soldier On is building a dozen more units at its West Housatonic Street campus specifically for women veterans. It’ll be the first village for veteran women.
The nearly hourlong ceremony drew a substantial amount of people, who filled up most of the park. Kiwanis had been working on all morning installing the flags and the ceremony featured patriotic songs, Taps, a rifle salute, a missing man table ceremony, and a number of speakers.
“I am very, very proud to be here to see this sea of red, white, and blue, said George DeLisle, Kiwanis Club district manager.
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VCAI First Friday Artswalk featured in The Berkshire Eagle

Soldier On: First Friday Artswalk showcases veterans’ artwork

Berkshire Eagle | Richard Lindsay | October 7, 2016

The 57-year-old Navy veteran isn’t afraid to try new painting styles and a range of subjects from outer space to swinging in a hammock among birch trees.

“I call it wild imagination,” he said. “Having no style is my style.”

Wyatt’s art is also therapeutic as, once homeless in Philadelphia, he came to Soldier On in Pittsfield five years ago to get back on his feet. He has since transferred from the transitional care facility on West Housatonic Street to Soldier On’s permanent veterans housing next door.

Painting was the emotional outlet Wyatt needed on the road to stability.

“It’s helped me with my mental injuries; it helps me relax and is a great hobby,” he said.

Wyatt is among the dozens of current and former Soldier On residents in Pittsfield and in Leeds enrolled in the nonprofit organization’s Veterans Community Arts Initiative. Several of the program’s artists will make their debut this evening during the city’s First Fridays Artswalk.

Each month between 15 and 20 downtown businesses show case primarily paintings and photographs from local visual artists, with several of the venues having opening receptions from 5 to 8 p.m. The veterans art will only be on display during that three-hour period at the Intermodal Transportation Center on the corner of Columbus Avenue and North Street. Typically, First Fridays art is on display for the remainder of the month.

Shortly after Soldier On hired Nathan Hanford as its art director three years ago, the Becket artist created the art initiative that has had a range of talent.

“I’m working with people who’ve suffered strokes, never painted before or are seasoned artists,” he said.

Transportation Center at the Intermodal Center in Pittsfield.

Hanford hopes the First Fridays debut will lead to a more regular showing of the veterans work. He currently has a rotating exhibit of his students paintings at the Hilltown Community development Corporation based in Chesterfield, between Worthington and Leeds.

“We hope that this is the beginning of an ongoing partnership between Soldier On and First Fridays Artswalk venues,” said Pittsfield Cultural Development Director Jen Glockner.

The veterans art is the latest in art therapy exhibits taking hold during First Fridays Artswalk. The Berkshire Alzheimer’s Partnership “Memories in the Making” returns on Friday at Downtown Pittsfield Inc. after making its debut last year.

“It’s especially nice for the families of the Alzheimer’s patients to see their loved ones express themselves with these beautiful pieces of art,” Glockner said.

The Soldier On art initiative has seen a few of its pupils hone their skills to the point it’s no longer a hobby, but a career. Hanford cited one veteran who has his own studio apartment in the downtown.

“He’s painting profusely and having his own shows,” he said.

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Groundbreaking of Agawam Gordon H. Mansfield Veterans Community

Left to Right: Girard "Jerry" Sargent of Citizens Bank, Bruce Buckley of Soldier On, Agawam City Councilor George Bitzas, Bruce Sorota of Stratford Capital Group, Mayor Richard Cohen, Agawam City Councilor Robert Rossi, State Representative Nicholas Boldyga, State Senator Don Humason

Left to Right: Girard “Jerry” Sargent of Citizens Bank, Bruce Buckley of Soldier On, Agawam City Councilor George Bitzas, Bruce Sorota of Stratford Capital Group, Mayor Richard Cohen, Agawam City Councilor Robert Rossi, State Representative Nicholas Boldyga, State Senator Don Humason.

SOLDIER ON BREAKS GROUND ON AGAWAM FACILITY 

The Reminder | Chris Goudreau | October 7, 2016

AGAWAM – Fifty-one homeless veterans will be able to live and contribute to the community when nonprofit organization Soldier On opens its new $24 million Gordon H. Mansfield Veterans Community sometime by the end of the summer of 2017.

City officials, local representatives, executives from Solider On, and contributing partners for the project dug their shovels into the earth and broke ground on the project on Oct. 3 during a ceremony at the site of the former Western Massachusetts Regional Police Academy at 702 South Westfield St., which would be renovated and expanded for the project.

“In 2011, in Pittsfield, we opened up the Gordon Mansfield Veterans Village with 39 units of permanent housing that provides each veteran with home ownership to method of ownership called a limited equity cooperative,” Bruce Buckley, chief operating officer of Soldier On, said. “The residents pay real estate taxes to the city of Pittsfield, they work in the city of Pittsfield, they volunteer, and shop in the city of Pittsfield.”

He continued, “They remain sober; their health improves; they become financially solvent and they improve as a result of projects like this. I know in Agawam we’re going to offer the same results that we’ve had in the city of Pittsfield.”

 

Soldier On veteran residents looking at the former Western Massachusetts Regional Police Academy that will become the Gordon H. Mansfield Veterans Community.

Soldier On veteran residents looking at the former Western Massachusetts Regional Police Academy that will become the Gordon H. Mansfield Veterans Community.

Buckley construction has begun work for the project, which would house 51 veterans. Forty-nine individuals would live in the rehabilitation building, and to the rear of the building would be new construction that would house two veterans as well as a kitchen and dining area.

He noted at the end of August the organization opened a 43-unit facility in Chicopee.

“It’s very similar to this, not so much in appearance, but into how it was funded, how it was financed and how we occupy it,” he explained. “Right now we have 27 of the 43 units filled and we’re probably putting four or five more [people] in each week until the end of the month and then that project will be filled.”

Buckley said the services provided at the Chicopee veterans community would also be provided at the Agawam location, including transportation and mental health assistances, job needs, and pharmaceutical requirements.

“We also prepare at least one hot meal daily that’s available to each veteran,” he added.

Buckley said the project is funded with state and federal historic tax credits in partnership with companies such as Citizens Bank and the Stratford Capital Group.

“Permanent housing is a critical piece in the recovery and stabilization of the lives of the formerly homeless veterans,” he said. “The cost of doing a project like this is great. The cost of not doing it would be even greater.”

He added chronic homelessness erodes a person’s self esteem and the project would seek to give homeless veterans an opportunity to regain their positive self worth.

Mayor Richard Cohen said in July 2010 legislation was passed to allow Solider On to utilize the site of the former police academy.

“A light has to go off in somebody’s head that says, ‘Wait, we could do something with this building that would be useful to help, not only the community, but some of the greatest people of our society – our veterans,’” he added. “The idea came from then [state] Rep. Rosemary Sandlin who had the legislation done.”

State Sen. Donald Humason said he’s proud of the region he represents because he believes his constituents care about the well being of veterans.

“We’ve heard of tragedies of veteran homelessness, veteran suicide, veteran unemployment, and these are the sordid sad stories that we don’t talk about, but they need to be addressed,” he noted. “Today, Soldier On has taken that step to address the issue of serving those veterans who have problems after returning.”

State Rep. Nicholas Boldyga said he believes as a society people have to partner together to help veterans.

“It can’t be just up to government to do something for veterans,” he explained. “It’s up to us as regular citizens [to help].”

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Veterans Housing in Chicopee featured on MassLive.com

MassLive.com Jeanette DeForge | September 16, 2016

Soldier On opens housing for homeless veterans in Chicopee’s former Chapin School

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CHICOPEE – After two years of crashing on a lumpy couch at a friend’s house, disabled Marine veteran Ferris Shelton finally has a home of his own.

“It is a slice of heaven,” he told Chicopee Mayor Richard J. Kos, who shook his hand and welcomed him to the city. “I’m sleeping on a mattress.”

It isn’t only having a real bed, a bathroom , a kitchen and a spot to teach himself how to play the keyboard that is special. Moving into the new Soldier On complex at the old Chapin School is giving Shelton and other down-on-their-luck veterans a chance to get back on their feet.

Thursday, Soldier On held an open house to show off the nearly 120-year-old building that has been converted from a vacant elementary school to a 43-apartment home for homeless veterans.

Construction was completed in late summer and the first 16 men have moved in over the past two weeks.

Each apartment is a little different and Shelton had his choice of units. He selected a corner apartment because he figured he could open the windows and get a cross breeze. His is one of the apartments that still has one of the original blackboards hanging on the wall.

Life wasn’t always so hard for Shelton. He served active duty in the U.S. Marine Corps for three years and after being honorably discharged he married, had children and worked at Milton Bradley for 16 years. But after a divorce, his life went into a tailspin.

“I lost my way with drinking and debauchery,” he said.

Eventually he found Soldier On, which started him on a road to recovery. He attends Alcohol Anonymous meetings, reads a lot and is teaching himself to play piano. Once he settles in more, Shelton said he hopes to start looking for a job and also talked to Kos about volunteer opportunities with veterans groups.

“It’s tough when you get shot at and then you have to live your life,” he said, declining to give many details about his military service. “Now I have to be persistent and consistent with my recovery.”

Even in the short period of time he said he has found that the residents are becoming friends and supporting each other.

“We have one thing in common. We took an oath to protect the country and not everyone did that,” he said.

The $7.3 million rehabilitation was done in a partnership with O’Connell Development Group of Holyoke and was funded with a variety of different sources including affordable housing grants and historic tax credits and City of Chicopee contributions. Western Builders renovated the building, said Bruce Buckley, chief financial officer for Soldier On.

“It was a great partnership. It was a pleasure to work with everyone,” he said.

The complex is set up as a housing cooperative. The residents must be veterans and earn no more than the federal low-income requirements of about $28,000 a year. Each first pays $2,500 for a share in the cooperative, and then pays a monthly rent that is 30 percent of their income. Every tenant is different, some have veterans’ benefits, others have social security and some work, he said.

The most any resident pays is $883 a month, but rarely does a veteran pay the full amount. Some residents pay as little as $50 a month, Buckley said.

While the $2,500 seems like an insurmountable amount for the veterans, who were either homeless or at risk of being homeless, local banks and other organizations have donated money to Soldier On, to be gifted to anyone who cannot come up with the money to pay the initial fee, Buckley said.

To manage the building, residents and Soldier On employees form a board, similar to a condominium association. They oversee finances and set rules for the tenants, he said.

Soldier On also continues to provide services to tenants including counseling, transportation, job help and anything else they may need. Counselors will come to Chapin Housing to meet residents in their own homes and there are also a few small offices in the building where they can talk, Buckley said.

“We bring the services to them,” he said.

Currently about 55 people have applied for the 43 apartments. Soldier On officials are still sorting through the applications to select the remaining residents of the Chapin project.

Those who are not selected may have a chance to be placed in Agawam, sinceSoldier On is renovating the former Western Massachusetts Regional Police Academy and building 52 apartments there.

Kos toured the old school and said he was mayor and School Committee chairman when the board made the difficult decision to close Chapin in 2003 as an elementary school because of budget cuts. For two years it was used as an alternative school before it was shuttered in 2005.

“This is a positive use of a former school,” he said, thanking the City Council, local veterans agencies and department heads for their support for the project.

Among those who toured the school were a number of former teachers and the retired principal John Coach and his wife, Joanne Coach, who worked as vice principal at nearby Gen. John Stefanik School.

“I can’t believe how bright it is. We did not realize how dark it was at the time,” said Donna Dinsbach Valliere , who taught kindergarten at Chapin.

She and Linda Low, also a kindergarten teacher, pointed out the hallway in the basement saying that is where children had physical education classes.

“What a great idea for veterans. What would we do without veterans?” Lowe said.

As a condition of receiving historic tax credits, some of the school features had to remain, including the wide hallways. Some apartments also have the original blackboards, Casey DiCicco, communications director for Soldier On, said.

Each unit, which measures about 500 square feet, has a bedroom, a bathroom and a living area and kitchenette complete with stovetop and microwave oven. Each is furnished with a new double bed, a recliner, a dresser and small table with two chairs, she said.

James Baer, a case manager at Soldier On, is one of the veterans who has applied for an apartment at Chapin. Baer, who currently rents an apartment in Haydenville, said he was living in a homeless shelter in Worcester and was such a desperate alcoholic that he drank mouthwash when he couldn’t buy liquor.

A veterans’ shelter in Worcester connected him with Soldier On in 2007 and it saved him. Baer said he eventually found a job with the organization.

Baer said he joined the U.S. Marine Corps as a teenager in 1975 and spent four years in active duty.

“I got out of the military at 21 – I was an alcoholic at that time,” he said.

For most of his 20s Baer said he went through a cycle of being hired and losing jobs because he was drinking. By the time he reached 30 he stopped drinking, married and started a family. When he divorced at the age of 42 he started drinking again and ended up homeless and desperate.

Soldier On helped him out of the cycle. Baer said he relapsed a few times but staff offered him a helping hand to get back on track. He has not had a drink since February 2010 and the former metal worker also found a new career with the organization.

He was first hired as an intake counselor and then studied at Westfield State University to become certified as a substance abuse counselor. At 58, Baer said he is now enrolled at Holyoke Community College and eventually hopes to earn his bachelor’s degree in social work.

Not all Soldier On clients have substance abuse problems. Some suffer from post traumatic stress and others have other problems which make it difficult for them to function without help, he said.

Soldier On does like to have a staff member or two living in Chapin School to help support their fellow veterans in case someone does need help. Baer said he meets the income guidelines and other qualifications so he hopes his application is selected.

“I like working with the veterans. They are in the same position I was and I can see they are making the same mistakes I did,” he said.

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Albany County 50 year lease featured on News 10

Homeless veterans fine home in Colonie with the help of ‘Soldier On’

News 10 | Ayla Ferrone | September 14, 2016

COLONIE, N.Y. (NEWS10) — An organization that helps homeless veterans will finally have a location in Albany County.

The Soldier On program received a 50 year lease for the vacant Ann Lee nursing home in Colonie.

The building that used to house the elderly of Albany County, vacant for nearly a decade, will now be used to help another vulnerable group of people in the Capital Region.

For the next 50 years, Soldier On will use this site to house and treat homeless veterans.

The push to find a place for Soldier On in the Capital Region has been strong for the past four years.

“It’s our time as a society to come and put our best foot forward for these veterans and help them get back on the right track,” County Executive, Dan McCoy, said.

It’s been a dream for County Executive Dan McCoy- A veteran himself.

Finally a reality, McCoy says he’s proud to see the old Ann Lee nursing home put to good use.

“To get the nursing home where it can be apartments and then adding on, there will be wings coming off that will be apartments,” McCoy said.

After completion, the $30 million dollar project will provide housing, treatment, and a safe place for homeless veterans.

“They’ll come here for therapy,” McCoy said. “They’ll come here for support. To take college classes.”

County legislator, Todd Drake, says he credits McCoy for his hard work and says getting Soldier On a spot to provide these services was part of what drove him to run for office.

“I think it’s a historic step,” Drake said. “I think it demonstrates Albany County’s commitment to the long term welfare of veteran affairs in the Capital Region.”

Drake says it’s important for the community to do all they can to help those who served our country.

“You have people out there who have served this country and served this nation- some of them who are lost and need help,” Drake said.

McCoy says he hopes Solider On acquiring the long term lease for the Ann Lee building will provide that much needed help.

“It’s our time to say, look we’re here for you now,” McCoy said.

The project here will be similar to the location in Pittsfield, Mass., which has had great success.

The whole program will also be run by veterans themselves.

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Albany County Legislature Approves 50-Year Lease for Soldier On Housing Project

Times Union | Amanda Fries | September 12, 2016

Albany Legislature OKs 50-year lease for homeless vets housing project

ALBANY — A 50-year lease agreement for the long-awaited housing project for homeless veterans in Colonie was approved by county legislators Monday night.

The county Legislature gave County Executive Daniel McCoy the OK to negotiate a lease agreement for the vacant Ann Lee Nursing Home in Colonie with Soldier On, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that provides homes for homeless veterans.

A project five years in the making, Soldier On will take over the building off Albany Shaker Road, adjacent to the Watervliet Shaker National Historic District. The plan is to renovate the 91,320-square-foot former nursing home into about 100 apartments and to construct two three-story buildings with an additional 100 apartments. The Ann Lee Home closed in 2008.

“I applaud County Executive (Daniel) McCoy for proposing this outstanding project that will help our most vulnerable veterans. These veterans have put their lives on the line for our country and often return home to little or no support,” Minority Leader Frank Mauriello, R-Colonie, said in a news release. “I thank Solider On for the great work they do in supporting veterans who need help the most. My colleagues in the Republican Conference remain committed to supporting this project and any other efforts to help our brave veterans.”

Majority Leader Frank Commisso has visited the Massachusetts site of Soldier On and was impressed with the operations there.

“We hope the Albany County site will at least match its success,” Commisso said.

The project is estimated to cost between $25 million and $30 million, Soldier On CEO John Downing has said. The money will come from a mix of state and federal support, including affordable housing grants and tax credits. With an expected $5 million to $6 million shortfall, Soldier On plans to raise the funds by direct fundraising and private foundation support.

The complex will also include on-site job training and counseling services. It would be modeled after the Gordon H. Mansfield Veterans Community in Pittsfield, Mass., which opened six years ago. Mansfield is a former deputy secretary of veterans affairs. An Army veteran, he was paralyzed in Vietnam. The Colonie community will also carry his name.

Leigh Hornbeck contributed to this report.

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