Nathan O’Leary from Comcast Newsmakers interviewed Jack Downing, CEO at the Majestic Theatre in West Springfield.
Solider On veterans thrive on grease paint, play writing and artist palettes
“Orpheus in the Berkshires” supports Soldier On veterans
The Berkshire Eagle | July 15, 2016 | Susan Bush
NORTH ADAMS – United States Army veteran LouAnn Hazelwood termed her professional acting debut “a Cinderella story.” Hazelwood’s birthday is July 5, and over the past year, her life has changed dramatically.
“Last year, at this time I was homeless,” the 61-year-old woman said. “This year, professional pictures were taken of me in costume and will be given to me as a gift. I came from over 30 years of abuse. I’ve found my voice and my courage. For me, it’s been miraculous.”
Hazelwood and about 75 other community residents opened the play, “Orpheus in the Berkshires,” on Thursday at the new Greylock Works venue, 508 State Road (Route 2). The run for the hour-long play continues tonight at 7:30 and concludes at 5 p.m. on Sunday, and is free to the public.
In the play, Hazelwood will act the part of one of the grandmothers looked after by Orpheus.
These performances are part of a community engagement initiative launched by the Williamstown Theatre Festival and led by Obie Award-winning playwright, Lucy Thurber, and festival associate director, Laura Savia. Additional cast members and materials were contributed through partnerships with the Williamstown Youth Center, the Williamstown Council on Aging; the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and Rock On band camp, both based at Berkshire Community College, and others. Theater festival actors round out the cast.
Hazelwood participates with the Soldier On program based in Leeds. Launched in 1994, Soldier On is a private nonprofit organization providing homeless veterans with transitional housing and a number of support services.
In 2010, Pittsfield became host city for the organization’s Gordon H. Mansfield Veterans Community, a permanent housing endeavor providing formerly homeless vets with affordable, sustainable homes. Solider On offers a women’s program, men’s program, an incarcerated veterans program and a resiliency health program.
This partnership holds much promise, Savia said.
“The show is a culmination of the first year of a multi-year community engagement initiative,” she said. “We were seeking partner organizations for this and we reached out to Nathan Hanford, who runs the arts program for Soldier On. That’s how we met LouAnn and all the wonderful people from Solider On.”
Among those are Ray Voide, a 56-year-old U.S. Marine Corps veteran, and United States Navy veteran John Goodro, 51. The two combined artistic talents to create “Palette,” a painting displayed at the Greylock Works entrance for the duration of the performances.
Voide has been involved with Solider On since December 2015, and spoke about how the design was created.
“I was a homeless artist in New York City,” he said. “One day as I was preparing to clean my palette, the white went across all the other colors and I liked the way it looked. I liked it so much that I took a picture of it and framed it.”
In February, Hazelwood, Voide and Goodro began traveling to Pittsfield with other members of Hanford’s art group, to attend a workshop series led by Savia and Thurber, The experience was life-changing, they said.
“I’ve done creative writing in the past,” Voide said. “I’ve written a play before, and working with (Thurber and Savia) was exciting. This group has helped us discover us.”
With encouragement, Voide’s photograph became a painting. Voide and Goodro painted the piece together. When the finished work was delivered to the play venue recently, the moment created a once-in-a-lifetime memory, Goodro said.
“It was exciting,” he said. Goodro said he has been with Soldier On since December.
“When we delivered the piece, John turned to me and said, ‘I feel big,'” Hanford said.
“I did, I felt big,” Goodro said. “Really though, it was Ray’s design.”
Voide spoke up quickly.
“John is an artist in his own right,” he said. “He’s got skills.”
“Soldier On saved my life,” Goodro said. “I liked what they offered and now they have art for the veterans. I never thought I’d pick up a paint brush and I give a lot of credit to Nate. He’s a genius.”
Hanford said he believes the veterans possess the creative spark.
“It’s the work that they do; they are the treasure,” Hanford said. “The value is in them.”
Working with the theater professionals felt right for Hazelwood, she said.
“I felt involved right from the start,” she said. “When I was taking part at the workshop, I was told that they were considering me for the one of the parts. I was really excited.”
Hazelwood has benefited greatly from the partnership, said Women’s Program Director Sara Scoco.
“This program really opened a door for us,” she said. “It’s done so much for LouAnn. We’ve watched her blossom; she’s bubbling over. It’s been great to see her take on this role.”
And that is the gift of the arts, said Savia.
“Our youngest cast member is 7 and our oldest cast member is 80,” she said. “The Williamstown Theatre Festival is opening its doors and this area has so many richly talented people.”
The arts are a unifying force, Thurber said. “That’s the hope of art, the hope of the theater, that with all of our different struggles, our places in life, we can get together and create something.”
Chris “Cappy” Leos was born in Boston, MA on July 28, 1958. Raised in Tewksbury, MA Chris excelled in sports as a young child. Chris played football, basketball, but truly excelled in baseball where he played third base at Tewksbury Memorial High School. During his high school career Chris only struck out once and he was later inducted to the hall of fame. Being from Massachusetts he is a loyal Boston Red Sox fan. Chris fell to peer pressure when he was a freshman in high school and started partying. He quickly learned that he was capable of drinking more than the other kids his age. He knew he had a problem, but enjoyed partying too much.
The partying and drinking is what ruined Chris. College baseball scouts sought him out, but Chris turned down the offers. In 1975 he joined the Marines where he worked in intelligence and communications with top secret clearance. During his time within the Marines, Chris married his childhood friend who was a tap, ballet, and jazz dancer.
When Chris left the Marines in the 1990s he went to work for United Stationers Supply Co. where he was a floor supervisor. He was also the assistant varsity coach of the Tewksbury Memorial High School baseball team. While working and coaching Chris continued to drink on a daily basis. After 17 years of marriage Chris and his wife grew apart from each other.
After the divorce Chris moved around between Methuen, Burlington, MA and Hampton Beach in New Hampshire. In 2010 Chris ended up renting a room in Haverhill, MA which is where he had his wake up call. Chris quickly learned that the house he was renting a room in was a crack house. While he never did drugs he found he was isolating himself, stayed in his room and continued to drink. It wasn’t until his best friend, Steve Scilbilia, coaxed him into going to the Bedford VA Hospital by telling Chris they were going to the 99 Restaurant for lunch. Chris had no idea about the VA and the services that were offered to veterans. With a little hesitation Chris admitted he needed help and started his journey to recovery.
During Chris’s fight of staying sober he completed a series of detox programs in Bedford, Boston, and Providence, RI. Chris became aware of Soldier On during his time at the Providence VA Medical Center. In September 2015 Chris arrived in Leeds and has been an active resident ever since. Chris said the programs Soldier On have been excellent for him and assist him with staying on track. He attends daily group and meetings to stay sober. Chris directs a regular spiritual group called
“Came to Believe.” He assists as many residents as he can and is a promoter of engaging recovery to stay sober. Chris has now been clean for the past 15 months.
During his free time Chris enjoys to watch sports and movies. His favorite movie is Goodfellas. He also works out 4-5 times a week where he rides the stationary bike. Chris’s plans for the future are to remain 100% service connected. Chris also intends settle down within the Pioneer Valley area as he wants to remain close to the great deal of friends, both the residents and staff, which he has made at Soldier On
Hilltown Voices: Solider On Art Show
Daily Hampshire Gazette | July 8, 2016 | Fran Ryan
Art lovers, and friends and supporters of Soldier On veteran artists, gathered at the Hilltown Community Development Corporation in Chesterfield on Thursday for an art open house that showcased 45 art pieces from 12 participating artists.
For the last three years, artist in residence Nathan Hanford has been working with several veterans in the program making a wide variety of art supplies available and offering artistic assistance to anyone who cares to participate.
One couple did just that. Brian and Meaghan Cooper of Pittsfield said a painting by Army Reserve veteran Dawn LeHouiller “just spoke to them,” so they bought the piece, entitled “Portrait of a woman,” for $200.
Albany Times Union | June 30, 2016 | Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs
Bethlehem – As Jerry McCluskey sprays lubricant on machines or laughs with his co-workers, he looks no different from the other mechanics at the paving and construction company where they work.
McCluskey grew up working on cars in Schoharie and was a technician in the Army. The president of Callanan Industries regards him as a dedicated employee, and McCluskey says everyone has made him feel welcome at his new job.
But when the 34-year-old veteran arrives at 7 a.m., five days a week, he steps out of an Albany County Correctional Facility vehicle, and when he leaves at 3:30, he is transported back to the jail where he is serving a two-year sentence for driving with 26 license suspensions.
He is the first in a collaboration among the Albany County Sheriff’s Office and Soldier On, a privately funded veterans advocacy group, as well as Callanan, to employ incarcerated veterans while they complete their sentences in a ground-breaking program that Sheriff Craig Apple said is attracting attention from other agencies across the country.
On Thursday, Apple announced the Second Chance Veteran Inmate Work Release Program at Callanan’s mechanic garage in Selkirk, where McCluskey earns $15 an hour — money he uses to pay off fines and saves for life after jail. The goal is to drive down recidivism rates and prepare incarcerated veterans for employment.
Of about 200 veterans who have passed through Soldier On’s counseling services at the jail in the last two years, only four have returned. Yet, this is the first time the jail has allowed outside companies to hire inmates as full-time employees.
John Downing, CEO of Massachusetts-based Soldier On, said it was time to “stop having parades for veterans” and instead find ways for them “to be employed and have successful and stable lives, rather than celebrating them and then walking away and forgetting they exist.”
Although McCluskey was sentenced to two years in jail for two counts of felony first-degree aggravated unlicensed operation, he can get out by September with good behavior. Through the new work-release program, he is also guaranteed employment at Callanan after serving his time.
This past month passed much more quickly than the first four, McCluskey said, now that he is spending his time working and making money. Before, “all I was doing was just sitting there,” McCluskey said. “To be able to get out and do this, it’s making the time go by so fast.”
Callanan President Don Fane, who proposed the program to the jail because of difficulty filling positions and a determination to help veterans, said McCluskey and others can apply their military training to the workforce.
“They learned a skill when they were in the service … they didn’t forget it,” he said. “And this particular individual in this case, he’s been a very good employee.”
Apple said hiring McCluskey was a “bold move” and hopes other companies see the program’s success and say, “We can try that.”
McCluskey said he wants to counsel inmates through Soldier On once he is released.
He wears a bright orange Callanan T-shirt and green cap and is grateful to be a part of the Callanan team.
“I come here, work eight hours, go home, sleep, wake up and do it again,” he said. “The only difference is I go home to a different place than everybody else.”
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Veterans’ Housing Dedicated at Soldier On in Leeds
Daily Hampshire Gazette | June 29,2016 | Dan Crowley
NORTHAMPTON — James Oliver’s home burned down five years ago in upstate New York, leaving him homeless.
The 60-year-old Vietnam veteran migrated to the Soldier On homeless shelter on the grounds of the VA medical center in Leeds, not knowing where his next permanent home might be.
Katrina Dore, 38, a U.S. Air Force veteran, left an abusive marriage and eventually found space in Soldier On’s former transitional home for women on the VA grounds after spending considerable time on the streets.
“I was living out of my car, all the way from Kentucky to Vermont, wherever I could stay,” said Dore, a New Hampshire native.
Oliver and Dore are the new faces of Soldier On’s first homeless veterans ownership housing on a VA campus, and the new Women and Children’s Housing Unit, which represents another innovative housing concept for veterans.
“Four and a half years I have waited for this,” Oliver said of his new home at the 44-unit Gordon H. Mansfield Veterans Community, where about 150 people gathered for a dedication ceremony Wednesday.
“I’m excited about moving in,” said Oliver, who served as a U.S. military police officer and assisted with the evacuation of Americans and South Vietnamese from Saigon in 1975. “I’ve watched them build this right outside my window.”
The facility allows veterans who have been successful in the Soldier On program to purchase an equity stake in their homes. The idea is for veterans to become homeowners while surrounded by the support services they need throughout their lives.
The nonprofit organization built its first such development in Pittsfield, a 39-unit facility that is also named after Mansfield, a decorated veteran and former deputy secretary of veterans affairs who died in 2013.
The ceremony outside the newly built townhouse-style homes was marked by several impassioned speeches from local, state and federal officials, as well as John “Jack” Downing, chief executive officer of Soldier On.
“We’re trying to make a difference in the place we live,” Downing told the crowd. “The more we give, the more we chip away at the barriers.
“The standard for homeless veterans is beautiful, affordable housing,” he continued. “What we give away lives on forever in the people we give it to.”
Needs of individuals
The keynote speaker was retired Col. David W. Sutherland, a former special assistant to the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. Sutherland gave a powerful account of his own combat experience in two wars, particularly in Iraq, and the sacrifices of the men he commanded who put their lives on the line, for their country and, in one case, for him.
“American people know what we are, but they may not know us,” Sutherland said. “You can’t talk about us without understanding the unique needs of individuals.”
Sutherland recounted examples of veterans and their families who fell on hard times, and stressed why the new housing model built by Soldier On, in collaboration with the VA Central Western Massachusetts Health Care System, is important to providing veterans with dignity and respect in their lives.
“The power of humiliation when you don’t fit in can be overwhelming,” he said. “This is potential, not pity, and recognizes that sometimes people need a hand up, not a handout.
“We will not tolerate another generation of homeless veterans,” Sutherland said.
Other speakers included U.S. Rep. James McGovern, D-Worcester; Lisa Pape, national director of homeless programs at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; Francisco Urena, the state’s secretary of veterans’ services; John Collins, director of the Veterans Affairs Central Western Massachusetts Health Care System; Michael Gondek, vice president of the Life Initiative; and Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan.
Sullivan described the new housing as “justice for vets.”
“Remember every day you live here, it’s your home,” Sullivan told the veterans shortly before they were presented with Soldier On welcome mats.
Women and children
Although the men who will own and occupy the approximately 410-square-foot units at the Gordon H. Mansfield Community have not yet moved in, 15 women have taken up residence since December in Soldier On’s Women and Children’s Housing Unit just down the hill. A 16th is expected to arrive this week, bringing the development to capacity.
Lou Ann Hazelwood, 60, is the oldest veteran living at the women’s transitional housing, which currently has no children in residence. She said the tenants support each other, hearing each other’s problems and helping solve them.
“We have women coming from all walks of life in all different situations,” said Hazelwood, a U.S. Army veteran who hails from New York and who has been involved with the Soldier On program for four years.
Many of the women living in the transitional housing have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, have a history of substance abuse, or been victims of domestic or military sexual violence. About a dozen of the woman earlier lived in transitional cottages run by Soldier On on the VA campus.
The program provides a variety of wellness programs, including stabilizing mental and physical health, group sessions on building self-esteem, and programs geared toward education, job training and employment.
There is a waiting list to get into the housing and programs, and women will typically stay in such transitional housing about a year on average, said Sara Scoco, director of Soldier On’s women’s program, during a tour of the property.
“Typically, women stay longer because they come to us having lost everything — all sense of self-confidence and self-esteem,” Scoco said.
The youngest of the residents is 27-year-old Charley Mitchell, who grew up in Holyoke and enlisted in the U.S. Navy right out of high school, and is planning to become a certified nursing assistant. A former crew chief on U.S. Navy planes, Mitchell came to Soldier On from a substance abuse rehabilitation program in New Bedford.
After several years in the military, an experience that took her to Africa, Europe and the Middle East, Mitchell said she had great difficulty adjusting to civilian life.
“It was all I knew,” Mitchell said of her military experience. “It was who I was. It was my identity.”
Mitchell said she is finding the support she needs in the women’s program to move forward with her life.
“Everybody really cares about each other,” Mitchell said. “My grandfather died while I was here and nobody left me alone. I think it’s helpful to be with people who’ve had similar experiences to you. There’s no judgment because they’ve all been there.”
Heather Aslin is one veteran who said she lost everything when she relapsed after eight years of sobriety while living in Monmouth County, New Jersey. A U.S. Navy veteran who has a long history with substance abuse and who suffered military sexual trauma, Aslin said the women’s program is helping her rebuild her self-esteem as she works on getting back into school to obtain a social work degree.
“My addiction has taken me to places that are not fun,” Aslin said before Wednesday’s dedication ceremony. “I’m blessed that I found this place, because it’s amazing.”
Dan Crowley can be reached at email@example.com.
Albany County Legislature nears vote on 50-year lease for site near airport.
Times Union | June 7, 2016 | Leigh Hornbeck
A housing project for homeless veterans five years in the making is poised for approval by the Albany County Legislature.
Last week, the Audit and Finance Committee approved a 50-year lease agreement for the former Ann Lee Home with Soldier On, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that provides homes for homeless veterans.
Soldier On will take over the building off Albany Shaker Road, adjacent to the Watervliet Shaker National Historic District.
Soldier On’s proposal 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 project will cost between $25 million and $30 million, said John Downing, CEO of Soldier On. The money will come from a mix of state and federal support, including affordable housing grants and tax credits. Downing expects to have a $5 million to $6 million shortfall, which Soldier On will fill 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.
The Ann Lee Home closed in 2008 and Downing said he first visited the site in 2011. It was a perfect location, he said, because it is close to the Albany International Airport and public transportation.
Soldier On began pursuing approvals from the town of Colonie and the county in 2012. The committee vote signals the County Legislature will likely approve the project at its June 13 meeting. The committee also voted to issue a “negative declaration” after an environmental review of the site, which means the group doesn’t think development of the veterans’ community will negatively effect the environment.
The goal of Soldier On is to rehabilitate troubled veterans to become contributing members of society. A portion of the housing will be occupied by vets who pay rent and taxes, a model that Soldier On developed for several reasons.
“When you’ve lost everything in your life and then re-established yourself, you feel you can never give back,” Downing said. “Paying taxes is a way for our veterans to feel they’re part of the community, and it puts them on equal footing with everyone else in the community.”
Down ing estimates more than 1,200 veterans in the Capital Region need housing, jobs and medical treatment. He is motivated by the unspoken agreement the country’s 23.5 million veterans made when they put on a uniform.
“They said, ‘We will die for you,'” Downing said. “And there is a price to pay for combat and being separated from our families.”
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Read More: Times Union
On Saturday, May 21st Colonie Central High School held the 3rd Annual Raiderfest organized by their very own iCare team. Raiderfest is an all day event with the intent of uniting the local community. iCare operates on the core values of integrity, Community, Accountability, Respect and Empathy with the purpose of uniting the entire population of Colonie.
The day started out with a ceremony dedicated to the men and women of the U.S. armed forces and the induction of the “Hill of Heroes”. This memorial includes a 400-pound steel American flag along with granite blocks paying tribute to the five branches of military. The project was spearheaded by John Lawlor, a Colonie High student who graduates this year. Lawlor’s father, also a Colonie graduate, is in the Air Force. Lawlor said he came up with the idea to better recognize the sacrifices of those like his father who serve their country.
This school year iCare is focusing on educating and raising awareness for the active service men and women, as well as veterans. The money that was raised from this year’s event will be donated to Solider On, Blue Star Mothers of America Inc., and The American Gold Star Mothers Inc. At the dedication ceremony Dominick Sondrini, Soldier On’s Field Supervisor, spoke on behalf Soldier On. Sondrini shared the various programs that Solider On offers throughout the area. He also thanked the iCare team, Colonie Central High School, and Lawlor for their commitment to bring veteran awareness to their community.
Jane Geary is a veteran of the United States Navy. She is a graduate of the Soldier On Women’s program, and she has made remarkable progress in her time there.
Two Years ago, Jane’s world changed forever. Her husband of 18 years died which left a seemingly insurmountable emotional void in her life. Like many others who are faced with tragedy, she turned to alcohol to fill this void. As she continued to spiral downward she found herself being treated for substance abuse at Heywood Hospital in Gardner, Massachusetts. She was then admitted to the VA Hospital in New Bedford, MA where she was referred to the Soldier On’s Women program.
Though Jane eventually embraced and excelled in the program, the transition was very difficult. According to Jane, she spent the majority of her first 45 nights at Soldier On up all night depressed and crying, and would sleep during the day to get away from her problems. Soldier On’s relentless support during her difficult transition laid the ground work for her future success.
“Soldier On accepted me unconditionally, no matter how much I cried early on.”
Gradually, Jane became more comfortable in the program and began to actively participate. She realized how effective the resources at her disposal could be if properly utilized. Instead of focusing on the substance abuse issue on its surface, she was taking steps to treat the underlying problem as she was suffering from PTSD. This was caused by several events including child hood trauma, Military Sexual trauma, and the death of her husband. She found utilizing Prolonged Exposure therapy, a method of therapy where the traumatic event is re-experienced through conversation instead of avoiding the memory, was a game changer in managing her PTSD.
Goal setting became an effective tool for staying on track and focused. She set several goals for herself including; attending AA meetings, buying her own car, staying engaged on a daily basis, and her ultimate goal of getting an apartment in the community to live on her own. By utilizing services assisting wellness and finance she accomplished these goals.
When Jane first came into the program she was not utilizing any of her VA benefits. With the help of program director, Sara Scoco and wellness director, Stephanie Ovitt, Jane was given the resources to become 100 Percent service connected which put her at a point where she had enough income to afford to live in an apartment on her own and purchase a car.
Jane was successfully discharged from Soldier On Saturday, May 7th to move into her own apartment in Leeds, Massachusetts. She will continue to be involved in the women’s program by serving as a mentor and attending alumni events. All of her hard work in the program has set her up for sustained success in the community.
“I really owe it all to Soldier On, they love you until you can love yourself. When you walk through the door Soldier On gives you hope, and if you choose to accept their help you will grow into a different person.”
Former police academy to become housing for veterans
AGAWAM, MA (WGGB/WSHM) –
A former police training academy in Feeding Hills will be the future site of 51-units of housing for veterans.
The project just got a big lift with the announcement that Springfield Citizens Bank is providing 10-million dollars in construction financing.
Veterans like Pepito Caballero, the general manager of Soldier On says the need is great,” There’s a lot of homeless veterans out there looking for help,” said Caballero.
He credits Soldier On with helping him turn his life around, ” They helped me a lot, they gave me the opportunity to stay out of trouble, not being homeless,” said Caballero.
More veterans will have the same opportunity as Caballero thanks to the conversion of the former police training academy in Feeding Hills into housing for veterans.
Gary Shepard is the president and chief operating officer of Soldier On, “Veterans are two to three times more likely to be homeless than any other segment of our population so providing homes for veterans who are homeless are critical to their advancement and development in re-adapting them to the community,” said Shepard.
The key to the Soldier On Project is not only to get veterans a place to live but provide them with services they need as well to move forward with their lives.
Besides the 10-million dollars in construction financing from Springfield Citizens Bank, other sources of funding have come from historic tax credits, low income housing credits, and state funding.
Total price tag nearly 24-million dollars.
And veterans will enjoy pride of ownership,” It is limited equity type of housing where the veterans actually own their units, and the nice thing about this they will be paying taxes to the community of Agawam on these units, so they take pride in home ownership,” said Gary Shepard.
The units should be ready for occupancy in about a year and a half.
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