Building Homes for Veterans in Need
One community, one contribution and one contractor at a time
For two weeks a year, an extraordinary group of firefighters, policemen and other first responders from 14 states take personal time to organize and build a specially adapted home for a military veteran in need as part of the nonprofit, A Soldier’s Journey Home (ASJH).
For them, the ASJH mission is clear: Find a worthy recipient, galvanize the community and build a veteran a house that will allow him or her to flourish and prosper for the rest of this person’s life. It’s a task that the volunteers of this unique organization have succeeded at with impressive success.
Just this year, the ASJH group coordinated the efforts to construct a 3,100-square-foot home from the ground up for U.S. Army Specialist Anthony (Tony) Chobanov and his family in Spring Grove, Ill.
ASJH volunteers are quick to say that their success is strongly dependent on a caring community, generous contributions and … local, committed contractors.
Land and a Leader
The Chobanov home build marked the fourth year in a row that ASJH has selected a military veteran in need and then organized and built a home for that person. The organization has learned that the two biggest hurdles on any project are typically securing the land and finding a willing and committed general contractor to manage the project.
In the case of Chobanov, First Midwest Bank stepped forward and donated property in Spring Grove (pop. 5,398), a small community located in McHenry County, northwest of Chicago, near the border of Wisconsin.
Judy Morgan, Emeritus Trustee with ASJH, notes, “Spring Grove is a beautiful town where everyone seems to know each other, which is exactly the right fit for this soldier who suffers from traumatic brain injury and severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It’s the perfect landing for this soldier and his family.”
Once they had the property, the ASJH team looked to find a general contractor to lead the effort. In an early planning meeting with Spring Grove officials and trustees, the community’s Building and Zoning Officer, Trent Turner, recommended Manusos General Contracting, Inc., a commercial contractor based in Fox Lake, not far from Spring Grove, and specifically Joe McKeown, the company’s Vice President. Manusos is a family-owned business led by Charlene Manusos. The company, in business since 1992, has a strong reputation in the area as a general contractor and a subcontractor able to self-perform concrete and carpentry.
ASJH Secretary and Project Manager Chuck Frankiewicz, a resident of nearby Arlington Heights, and ASJH Wall Fabrication Coordinator Dave Wietrzak, a teacher and division head of the career and technology department at Rolling Meadows High School in suburban Chicago, set up a meeting with McKeown to gauge his interest.
Morgan recalls, “Not only was Joe excited about being a part of our project, he opened his books and provided names and contacts for others in the area that might be able and willing to help, including an architecture firm that happened to be owned by Frankiewicz’s brother.”
McKeown further solicited volunteers, contractors, suppliers and anyone who would provide a donation and/or helping hand.
Frankiewicz adds, “Manusos, and Joe in particular, were critical to the build’s success. He brought a great deal of expertise, enthusiasm and resources, and helped galvanize our efforts. It was important to have someone that qualified. We are extremely grateful to Joe for everything he did for the Chobanovs and ASJH.”
Galvanizing a Community
As part of the build preparation, ASJH established close ties to community organizations, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and The American Legion chapters in the area.
Morgan says, “We reached out by phone and letter very early in the project planning process to meet with the local veteran organizations and talk about our soldier. We’ve found that it’s a great way to find volunteer contractors and gather donations. In fact, our electrical contractor was recommended by one of the veteran organizations.”
ASJH encourages the involvement of local area high school kids, too. For instance, ASJH volunteer Todd Hatfield oversees the graphics and media students at John Hersey High School in Arlington Heights. He travels to builds with his students so they can document stories about the soldiers in need, organize fundraising events and even help with construction.
Morgan explains, “Our goal really is to excite the community about our project by direct involvement. We welcome any and all support, even if it’s just visiting the site to find out what we’re doing.”
A Non-stop Nine Days
Just prior to the May 11 build date, Manusos crews installed the basement walls and footings on the Chobanov property in Spring Grove in preparation for the erection of the house walls and the rest of construction. On that date, crews from various trades and volunteers began showing up at the site.
Around 50 ASJH members from all over the country, including Illinois, Georgia, Louisiana, New York and Tenn., were on site to get the speed-build project moving forward in an organized way. The site was managed by Manusos and an ASJH safety officer as well as two volunteer firefighters all located in a site-based command center trailer.
In total, around 500 ASJH volunteers as well as first responders and veterans from all over the U.S. donated their personal time. This massive gathering of individuals undertook the challenge eagerly and enthusiastically. A local football team cleaned the site, the Boy Scouts managed the porta potties, which were donated, and the Girl Scouts served food.
When issues arose, which happens on every job site, the Manusos team stepped up. Morgan recalls, “Our steel supplier fell through at the last minute. Joe immediately called a specialty contractor he knew, and that individual donated everything we needed, saving us considerable time and money. Throughout the build, Joe, his wife Jamie, their family, friends and colleagues were just as much boots on the ground as the ASJH team.”
In just nine days, volunteers built the Chobanov’s home, installed flooring, painted and decorated rooms, installed appliances and even landscaped the site. The family was handed the keys to the new home on May 20, 2017, along with a mortgage-free title, a new car from a Ford dealership in Schaumburg, Ill., and even a new lawn mower for upkeep.
The Next Build
For the 2018 veteran build project, ASJH is partnering with the Nine Line Foundation, an organization that supports veterans injured in combat. It was founded two years ago by Captain Tyler Merritt, a member of the Army’s elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.
Typically, the Nine Line Foundation raises money for its veterans in need, and then hires a contractor to build the homes. Merritt believes they’ve found a quality build partner with ASJH.
Together, the two organizations have already put in motion the 2018 veteran home build project, which will be in New Braunfels, Texas, a city northeast of San Antonio, for Sergeant Eric Morante, a Texas native. Morante, an athlete with a love for boxing and football, enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 2004 after high school graduation. During his third tour in Iraq, he lost his right leg above the knee and shattered his wrist when a suicide bomber blew up a bridge that he and he team were guarding. He was medically discharged in 2010, but not before he became the first Marine amputee to compete in amateur boxing and earned a Purple Heart for his bravery in action. Today, he uses his boxing as an avenue to motivate and inspire other veterans and works with special needs children. But, Morante doesn’t have a home of his own … yet.
Morgan confirms, “We know we’re making a difference in the lives of those who have served and given so much, and just as importantly, we’re bringing communities together. A vital reason for our success is the many volunteers and contractors who make it possible.”
ASJH hopes to find someone just as qualified and committed as Manusos on its next build.