Doing the Right Thing

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Housing-oriented charities such as Habitat for Humanity served as the inspiration for John Gonsalves who founded Homes for Our Troops,  which modifies homes for injured servicemen and servicewomen.

May 01, 2006

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John Gonsalves, 39

Many remodelers and builders donate time, money and materials to housing-oriented charities such as Habitat for Humanity. That's exactly what John Gonsalves planned to do after watching a news report about an American soldier who lost both of his legs in a rocket-propelled grenade attack on a convoy in Iraq.

"It got me thinking about what happened from there," he says.

Assuming there was some kind of organization that modified homes for injured servicemen and servicewomen, he wanted to donate two weeks of time to it. Then he realized no such organization existed.

At that point, Gonsalves made a leap that few ever do: he quit his job to devote himself to doing the right thing. "As soon as I made the decision to do this," he says, "I knew it was going to take my life over."

Two years later, Homes for Our Troops ( www.homesforourtroops.org), the nonprofit organization he founded, has built or remodeled homes for eight veterans of the war in Iraq and has plans for another 11 in the works. Most of the first year was spent raising funds and establishing Homes for Our Troops as a nonprofit corporation.

"I think it was easier to learn how to structure a nonprofit than to start up a nonprofit and have no idea about the building process," he says. As a construction superintendent for a commercial contractor, he knew how to coordinate big jobs and how to build in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Plus, during his days as a general contractor, he'd done a few handicapped-accessible homes. Two law firms, Holland & Knight and Mintz Levin, worked pro bono to help set up the business side.

Choosing which soldiers to help gets harder all the time, Gonsalves says. "We try to look at who's most severely injured and the family situation and prioritize as best we can," he adds. "The biggest roadblock is raising the money. If we had unlimited funds, we'd help everyone."

To narrow down the applicants, Homes for Our Troops uses the same criteria that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs uses to determine who qualifies for a $50,000 specially adapted housing grant or a $10,000 special housing adaptations grant. Most individuals have lost two or more limbs or the use of two or more limbs, or are blind in both eyes. The grant money doesn't go far in modifying or building a home to meet their needs.

"Around here, $50,000 is a down payment for a house lot," Gonsalves says. "We coordinate our efforts with the VA to allow the veteran to apply for the grant, and we step in and bring the process to the local community."

The organization's first house went to Sgt. Peter Damon of the Massachusetts National Guard. Damon, his wife and two children received the keys to the house this past October. The VA gave Damon, an aircraft mechanic whose hands and forearms were lost when a Blackhawk helicopter tire exploded, $10,000 to put toward the home.

Rather than selling projects to clients, Gonsalves now has to sell his projects to the contractors, suppliers and manufacturers upon whose donated labor and materials Homes for Our Troops depends. The process, says Gonsalves, starts with sending press releases to newspapers and television stations near each soldier's hometown. Once word gets out and a few contractors or suppliers contact Homes for Our Troops, he asks them to start networking with their colleagues, customers and staff for other volunteers.

Fifty-nine companies donated labor or materials to Damon's house alone, notes Gonsalves. "My hats are really off to the people in the construction industry," he says. "I didn't realize until they did this how generous they are. They come onto our jobs after working all day, and then work all night. A talented construction person, their time is very valuable when you start putting a price on it."

Though two of the Homes for Our Troops projects have been done in conjunction with "Extreme Home Makeover," which remodels or builds a home in a week, Gonsalves' group usually works at a more normal pace. "The house we did in Massachusetts took us about six months," he says. "When you've got people donating time and materials, I think that timeline is pretty good."

The houses aren't over-the-top, though they tend to have nice finishes such as granite counters. It all depends on what's donated.

The work has taken Gonsalves as far as California, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Tennessee. He shares the travel with another member of the 5-person staff, but they still need to rely on local contractors to pull permits and to know building codes. They can also advise whether to build or to remodel depending on local home and land prices.

Even with four other staffers, Gonsalves still finds himself putting in 60-hour weeks. But it's less than he started out at, plus he can draw a salary and pay staff, which he couldn't at first.

"My wife was pretty shocked by the whole idea," he admits. "My son's 6, so it's great for me now, because he's starting to get what it's all about."

So are other people. As word has spread, even the President of the United States has taken notice, inviting Gonsalves to an hour-long Oval Office meeting in March.

"Raising awareness is the biggest thing," he says. "The main goal is to get the word out so that we can raise enough money that we don't ever have to have a waiting list." Right now the waiting list stands at seven, with another 20 potential applicants in process. Gonsalves estimates that so far only around 140 veterans of the war in Iraq have been severely injured enough to qualify for the VA specially adapted housing grants and Homes for Our Troops. He wants to be able to help all of them eventually.

"Just like somebody when they join the military, I made a commitment to make this work," he says. "In the end, hopefully this organization lasts longer than I do. It's something that should always be available."

 

 

John Gonsalves, 39

Organization: Homes for Our Troops

Personal background: A contractor since 1984. Ran his own, primarily residential, general contracting firm. Became construction superintendent for commercial contractor. No military background. Married with a 6-year-old son.

Employees: Four office staff and countless volunteers.

Typical job: Renovate house to make it handicapped accessible (ramps, bathroom, kitchen) or build new accessible home.

Market: Anywhere in the United States.

Projects: Eight homes completed to date, with 11 slated for 2006.

Strategy: Uses media appearances and high-profile partnerships to increase awareness and raise more money.

Organization goals: To provide homes for at least 50 percent of the severely injured veterans who qualify for specially adapted housing grants from the VA.

Personal goals: To have Homes for Our Troops outlast him.

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