Group to build ‘veterans village’

By Alex Bridges

The Disabled Veterans Committee on Housing has set its sights on buying or leasing a large, historic home located at Zea Street and South Massanutten Street in Strasburg to serve as a “veterans village.”

The organization, formed several years ago by veteran John Lewandowski, himself 100 percent disabled, aims to help former service members with their housing situation. That aid comes in the form of help with rent and bills as well as advocacy and assistance in finding permanent housing.

Lewandowski’s wife, Katherine, was at the site with an organization official, the property owner and representatives from Home Depot on Thursday.

“Well, this has been my husband’s dream ever since he started the DVCH, is to have a veterans village,” Lewandowski said. “He’s had houses built, houses remodeled and he’s helped disabled veterans that didn’t have a job that needed their rent paid or food.”

Mrs. Lewandowski, whose husband uses a wheelchair, noted that when the Strasburg home is renovated, it will be accessible to people in wheelchairs.

The organization has the help of Team Home Depot, a group affiliated with the hardware chain that assists with housing projects. Team captain C.J. Ismer explained that she and colleague Rick Fogel visited the house to see what building materials, supplies and other assistance the organization may need for the project. Home Depot donates up to $5,000 worth of supplies and associates volunteer to help, Ismer said.

“I know it’s going to be a long project, so we’re probably going to have to do this over a few different trips out here,” Ismer said.

“Home Depot’s really big on helping the veterans,” Ismer added.

Fogel, a U.S. Army veteran working at the Home Depot’s stocking distribution center in Frederick County, concurred with Ismer. Fogel recalled that he learned about Lewandowski’s project on the Internet. Fogel explained that Home Depot has an initiative called Celebration of Service that focuses on helping veterans and housing.

“It’s something we feel very strongly about,” Fogel said.

The home’s owner, Rick Lee, said he bought the property with the intention of moving into the house. Town zoning regulations did not allow him and his wife to keep the horse they own on the property, so they put the home on the market. Lee’s work as a seller and installer of walk-in bathtubs connected him to Lewandowski at least a year ago. Lee learned of Lewandowski’s idea for the veterans’ village.

“We came up with a solution to make it happen for him,” Lee recalled.

The organization needs to raise approximately $700,000, said Linda Roseboro, project manager and Lewandowski’s executive assistant. The amount would include what is needed to buy the property from Lee and to cover much of the cost of renovations.

Roseboro explained that the veteran’s center, once completed, would house three to six individuals at risk of becoming homeless. The center also will help veterans acclimate from military to civilian life, assist individuals with creating resumes and to connect them to private sector jobs. The center will help individuals with paperwork they need to complete as they seek benefits and assistance through the Veterans Administration.

“In the end, it’s all about paying back,” Roseboro said.

Lee already had site plans created and approved through the town administration, Roseboro said. She explained that Virginia code allows the home to house up to six people without the organization having to seek additional permits for the building.

Town Manager Judson Rex said recently that code allows up to six, unrelated people to live in the house. Since the organization plans to conduct some business activity in the home, the group needs to apply for a home-occupation permit, Rex explained. The town does not need to hold a public hearing on the permit, Rex said.

Roseboro noted that the organization will have an office in the home because they have to “be there to help these soldiers or these veterans when they walk through the door.”

The organization would have a person on staff available at all times to serve as a monitor to assist the veterans with any emergency situations. Roseboro said they hope to assign someone as monitor who has a nursing background and who can attend to needs on a 24-7 basis.

The property includes a large garden that the Lees make available to interested residents.

“The goal is to make this happen for John and, in the future, put some more housing back in the back part of the property and leave garden space so the veterans can grow their own food,” Lee said.

Lee has done most of the renovations to the house. That has included the gutting of the house and subsequent work on the inside and outside. He’s expanded the house by approximately 1,000 square feet to make the entire home 3,000 square feet. Lee also has made structural improvements.

Renovations will need to adhere to requirements under the Americans With Disabilities Act, such as making doorways wide enough for wheelchair access.

“So it’ll be a good fit for the community,” Lee said. “It’ll be a good fit for everybody. I think it’ll help bring some other stuff into the town, too.”

The partners expressed hope they could raise enough money for the project in the next 12-18 months. The organization plans to hold a fundraising event July 27 at the Strasburg Moose Lodge, 572 Red Bud Road.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com