Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center
Volunteer group repairs Veterans' homes
One hour from the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center's downtown Charleston campus is the home of Army Veteran James Freeman. For 19 years, Freeman and his wife have been living in the same house in Cross, South Carolina, but for the last two years the home has been in desperate need of repairs. On Feb. 16, a group volunteers from Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Rocky Point, New York, traveled south as part of a mission trip to repair 10 Veterans' homes from Charleston VAMC, including Freeman's.
"We traveled here knowing that we are donating to U.S. Veterans, not just South Carolina Veterans," said leader of the mission team Pastor Bruce Kaifler. "They served our whole country. We are all one in that respect."
For 11 years now, Kaifler and his team of over 40 volunteers, ranging in age from 15 to 85, travel to the southeast for a week in February to repair homes for those who are unable to afford the services themselves. The team spent their first seven years along the Gulf Coast aiding Hurricane Katrina victims, and in 2013 and 2014 the team partnered with Wilmington Area Rebuilding Ministry to address urgent home repairs for the elderly.
"Our team prayed and we felt like it was on our hearts to help Veterans," said Kaifler. "We connected with the Savannah VA Clinic in Georgia and worked with Vicki Johnson in the volunteer office and a social worker to identify some Veterans who were in need of home repairs in that area."
In 2015, through coordination at the Savannah VA Outpatient Clinic, operated by Charleston VAMC, the Trinity Evangelical Church repaired close to a dozen homes in Savannah. After such a positive experience they wanted to return to help more Veterans and this year they landed in Charleston.
"This is our way of tapping into the goodness of God for people and we are happy that our work is benefiting Veterans," said Kaifler, sitting next to Freeman on his porch and patting him on the back. "These are people who have served our country and given a self-sacrificing gift. This is our way to honor their service to our country through a little love. They are wonderful people."
After a hard rain three years ago Freeman hired a local contractor to repair damage to his home. The contractor disappeared, taking his money and completing only half the work.
"These people here this week are fixing structural damage in my garage, painting the inside, fixing rotten wood around the eves and installing doors," said Freeman. "They are super. I call them angels. They even bring me lunch and I eat lunch with them every day."
In an appointment with one of his Charleston VA health care providers, Freeman revealed that he needed help finding money to fix his home. When that provider heard about the group coming to Charleston from New York, he nominated Freeman to be one of the recipients. A quick trip to the Voluntary Service office got Freeman on the list and a few days later he got the call that he was approved.
Trinity Evangelical completely funds all of their own travel and materials needed to complete the repairs. This year the group was the selected beneficiary of donations raised by the 2015 FDNY 343 Ride. This annual bicycle trip occurs on the anniversary of Sept. 11 to honor and remember the 343 members of the New York Fire Department who perished in the World Trade Center in 2011. Each year the donated proceeds go directly to support Veterans. The $10,000 donation to Kaifler's group funded the majority of the materials needed for this year's mission in Charleston. Other donations from his congregation and paint supplies from a Charleston Sherwin Williams brought the donation total to almost $13,000.
Another Veteran that benefited from the generosity of the New York-based mission group is Harvey Simmons. Tears of joy welled up in his eyes as he rode the donated scooter down his newly constructed 65-foot wheelchair accessible ramp on Bogard Street in downtown Charleston.
"This will change my life tremendously," said Simmons. "It will make me more mobile and it will be easier for me to get in and out of my residence."
Prior to Trinity Evangelical's arrival Simmons was navigating rickety front porch stairs with a rolling walker.
"These people are tremendous and show up every day with a smile on their faces," said Simmons after his first ride down the ramp. "Words can't describe how I'm feeling right now."
"We are so grateful to Pastor Bruce and his team for travelling hundreds of miles and giving of their time and treasure," said Charleston VA Voluntary Service Program Manager Fred Lesinski. "Our Veterans are fortunate to benefit from the generosity of community-based resources and organizations near and far to meet needs that go beyond VA health care."
If you or your organization is interested in partnering with Charleston VA Medical Center to serve America's heroes, please call 843-789-7230 or visit www.charleston.va.gov/giving.