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News | April 23, 2018

Grand Rapids warfighter support includes housing vets

By Thomas Perry DCMA Public Affairs

The simplest of life’s pleasures are often the least appreciated. For many Americans, a hot meal and a safe place to call home can be taken for granted — at least until one is hungry or cold.

With average winter temperatures in the 30s, Michigan embodies cold. Sitting 85 miles east of Lake Michigan, Grand Rapids receives more than 75 inches of snowfall annually. Such numbers are nice while in grade school or when enjoying a window view from a warm room. It is not so nice on the other side of the glass.

According to a January 2018 Department of Veterans Affairs fact sheet, roughly 40,000 veterans were homeless and just over 15,000 were unsheltered or on the street in January 2017. With a 46 percent decline since 2010, strides have been made in reducing veteran homelessness. It is an ongoing battle, however, and it is a fight that has federal and civilian enterprises joining forces with a common goal of housing the nation’s former soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.

Habitat for Humanity is one of those civilian groups. The organization often sends representatives to social events to raise awareness and attract volunteers. Outside of a popular art festival here, one of those representatives met Defense Contract Management Agency’s Brad Gigliotti. The meeting would lead to an office-wide effort, honest conversations on the importance of volunteerism, a Cameroon-native no longer having to sweat, and ultimately, a renovated home for a local Air Force veteran named John.

“I started to ask questions, and while talking with the organization's representative, he mentioned that one of their project builds helps veterans get into new homes or rehab their current home,” said Gigliotti, a quality assurance specialist with DCMA Detroit's Grand Rapids office.

He was directed to contact Michael Hyacinthe, a Marine veteran, who serves as the local veteran-build project lead. Throughout their conversation, Gigliotti said he was reminded of DCMA’s warfighter support mission. After the meeting, he was excited to pitch the idea of a group effort to his leadership and coworkers, but he was unsure of how the proposal would be received.

“At first, I thought, ‘This is either going to be a giant bust, because it’s just another idea that has no legs, or it would be a huge hit, because it hits close to home,’” said Gigliotti, who is not a veteran himself but works with many within the agency. “I held a meeting to propose my idea to the office, and it was made clear that we have another mission here that needs our support.”

The 12 volunteer spots quickly filled, and more were willing, but any more than 12 hammers would have exceeded capacity for the 700-square-foot house.

“After serious discussions with our folks, the outpouring of individuals willing to give up their leave or flex their hours for a day to help a fellow veteran rehab his new home was unbelievable,” said Gigliotti.

Duane Howe, a Grand Rapids quality assurance team lead and current member of his county’s Habitat for Humanity family selection committee, was among the volunteers.

“This gave me the opportunity to give back to a veteran and partake in community give back with my team,” said the 21-year Air Force veteran who retired in 2014. “It is a very worthy cause for local veterans and important as an organization to give back and assist in a hand up to the local community.”

The importance of volunteerism was a common conversation topic among the Grand Rapids team, which included a mix of veterans, retirees, active-reservists and civilians: Byron Blasky, John Reid, John Deems, Keish Young, Nicole Augustine, Scott Christie, Brandon DeJong, William Westling, Dave Strait, Tom Williams, Howe and Gigliotti.

“Every day we share a mission to support our warfighter down range, but what about our veterans and retirees,” said Gigliotti. “It’s always important to volunteer in the community, but when ideas like this have real meaning behind them, it’s a little more important. Here we have veterans that need homes, and every day we support the warfighter, but there aren’t many opportunities that help support our veterans. I believe it is important that everyone in our office came together to help achieve this goal.”

When the day of the build arrived, the volunteers were greeted by a high of 35 degrees, which Gigliotti called a “decent day of weather,” and a man named Leonel from Cameroon who was working on completing his Sweat Equity hours. This concept requires a future home recipient to complete a minimum number of volunteer hours, usually between 300-450, constructing their own home and the homes of other future home owners.

“The program gives a hand-up not a hand-out,” said Howe. “That is a popular myth in which people think they get a free home. However in the end, they have a mortgage and also provide their own Sweat Equity into the home itself.”

Leonel had 84 hours left to sweat, but he was about to receive a major assist in completing his commitment.

“We were informed we could donate our hours to help this gentleman complete his hours, and all we had to do was sign his sheet,” said Gigliotti. “Well after lunch, he provided us his sheet, and it didn’t take long for all 12 volunteers to get in line and sign his sheet so that he could receive his new home. He was so elated he almost shed a tear. I would have to say that was the most enjoyable aspect of the experience.”

With an additional good deed in hand, the DCMA team returned to work. By the end of the work day, the renovated home was ready for John to move in. He was thankful to the team, and said he loves gardening and cannot wait to share that joy with his neighbors. This would have to wait however, as his home and yard were covered in snow.

“We left with smiles and a drive to continue to do good for our veterans,” said Gigliotti. “We will be doing this on a quarterly basis. Our next one is set for April 19, which will be a new build for another veteran.”

Gigliotti said the reason he turned the effort into a quarterly initiative was due to the overwhelmingly positive response he received after the first build.

In addition to helping a veteran receive a completely new home, this next crop of volunteers will have something else to look forward to — the average high temperature in April for Grand Rapids is 58 degrees.