Bringing It Home
Oliver Layne stands in ‘his’ bathroom, with a walk-in shower, one of many projects undertaken by those involved in the JoinedForces program.
Oliver Layne has come to call it “my bathroom.” Others in his family simply call it “dad’s bathroom,” for reasons that will become clear.
This is the small half-bath in his home on Border Street in Springfield, the one that was renovated to include a walk-in shower, something that became a necessity for Layne, a U.S. Air Force veteran of both Gulf wars, after he was afflicted with a rare muscle disease whereby his immune system attacks his muscles. This disorder made lifting his leg to get into a bathtub difficult, if not impossible.
“My day starts off with my cane, by the middle of the day I’m in my walker, and by the evening I’m in my wheelchair — I just get more and more tired throughout the day; I’m very limited in what I can do,” said Layne, whose bathroom renovation was realized through the JoinedForces program administered by Revitalize Community Development Corp. (CDC) and funded by grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and its Veterans Home Modification Program.
That well-thought-out name speaks volumes about this unique program and the many people who are involved in it.
For starters, the name helps convey that this is a program designed to assist veterans, many of whom are disabled and need help to stay in their homes or, in the case of Layne, live more comfortably in their home.
“Veterans are a big part of our focus,” said Colleen Loveless, president and CEO of Revitalize CDC, noting that the nonprofit agency also serves low-income families with children, the elderly, and individuals with special needs through initiatives such as its #GreenNFit and Healthy Homes programs. “Many are looking to age in place in their homes, many have injuries from their service, and this has become a particular focus of ours.”
“Veterans are a big part of our focus. Many are looking to age in place in their homes, many have injuries from their service, and this has become a particular focus of ours.”
The JoinedForces name also hints at how these projects to assist veterans are acts of collaboration, often involving a number of parties, including those at Revitalize CDC, other agencies focused on veterans and their needs, contractors, and area businesses.
That was certainly the case with Layne’s project, and also a coordinated effort to assist Ron Schneider and his wife, Cara, during a recent Volunteer Day initiative.
Schneider, a Vietnam War veteran now battling cancer he attributes to his exposure to Agent Orange, made his living as a general contractor. But his declining health left him unable to undertake many of the projects around the home that would have been so simple years earlier.
Fast-forward (we’ll fill in some details later) to this past spring, when there were two major projects at the Schneider home — one undertaken by a contractor to replace windows that had ceased to open easily, if at all, and the other involving an army (not a term we use loosely) of volunteers from Revitalize CDC and Home Depot to tackle a number of projects, from repairing the patio and driveway to building a shed and undertaking some landscaping work. New doors, also part of the mix, were put on earlier this month.
“All of this has taken a lot of pressure off me because I can’t do things around the house — I’m not physically able to do some of the projects that they handled,” Ron said. “And they did it in a day’s time because they had almost 100 volunteers.”
Suzanne Larocque (left, with Ethel Griffin) says projects range from roof repairs and replacements to installation of handicap ramps and bathroom renovations.
These comments from Layne and Schneider effectively convey the sentiments of those veterans and their families who have had work done on their homes. As for those doing the work, they say there are many types of rewards, but especially the pride and satisfaction that come from helping those who served their country.
“I love it — it’s not about the money,” said Frank Campiti, a general contractor who handles many projects for Revitalize CDC and its #GreenNFit, JoinedForces, and Healthy Homes programs. “I get a lot of satisfaction from helping these veterans. We do everything we can to make their lives better with whatever their repair is.”
Myles Callender, who served as construction manager for Revitalize CDC before starting his own construction company with his brothers, and still handles projects for the agency, agreed.
“Some of these projects may not look big in terms of their size and scope,” he said. “But they make a huge difference in the lives of these veterans. It’s very rewarding to help improve the lives of those who have served.”
“All of this has taken a lot of pressure off me because I can’t do things around the house — I’m not physically able to do some of the projects that they handled. And they did it in a day’s time because they had almost 100 volunteers.”
For this issue and its focus on construction, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the JoinedForces program and its efforts to help veterans and their families feel more at home — in all kinds of ways.
Layne told BusinessWest that his physical issues started several years after he returned from his service in the Gulf and started his professional career, working first at a college and then for AT&T. He suspects the disorder results from exposure to contamination at two bases where he served — Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Michigan (now closed), and Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas.
He started noticing that he was having trouble walking straight and that his hands didn’t work right.
“My body just didn’t work the same as it did before; I couldn’t run anymore, I couldn’t walk long distances,” he recalled, adding that it took doctors more than two and a half years to figure out what was wrong with him.
In 2017, he was officially diagnosed with a muscle disorder, and it was determined that there was no known cure. All medication was stopped, he said, adding that he is doing what he can to try to slow down or mitigate the condition’s progress, though diet and physical therapy, for example.
He has soldiered on, but increasingly has struggled with everyday tasks. He walls with a significant limp and can no longer navigate stairs — the Veterans Administration put a stair lift in his home — and has trouble getting in and out of the shower.
Ron and Cara Schneider (center, with their daughter, Bridget, between them) celebrate the work done on their home in Ludlow by dozens of volunteers.
He became aware of Revitalize CDC and filled out an application for assistance late last fall. “That was on a Monday, and on Wednesday, I got a call; they were asking me what I needed done in my home and how they could help.”
Layne’s bathroom renovation is, in many ways, typical of the projects undertaken through the JoinedForces program, said Ethel Griffin, vice president of Community Engagement for Revitalize CDC.
She told BusinessWest the agency works with other veteran-related organizations on outreach to help make sure people know about JoinedForces and the agency’s other programs and encourage them to apply for assistance.
“Our work with veterans is important because they’ve served our country, and they deserve to have comfort in life,” she told BusinessWest. “A lot of our veterans are very old, and it’s amazing to see the conditions they are living in. We do spend a little more time and bit more money with the veterans — because they deserve it. This program gives us the feeling that we’re helping our country as well, even though we’re helping individuals; it’s our time to serve.”
Larocque agreed. “I don’t come from a military background at all, so meeting these veterans has been such a great experience. They’re so appreciative, and it’s been really rewarding to work with them.”
Since Loveless came on board in 2009, the agency has assisted between 200 and 300 veterans across the state, with the vast majority of them living in the 413, and veterans’ homes are included in all Revitalize CDC programs, including #GreenNFit.
Ron Schneider is grateful that JoinedForces has taken pressure off him because the volunteers completed projects he no longer can.
The projects vary in size and scope, said Suzanne Larocque, HUD project manager for Revitalize CDC, adding that they range from roof repairs and replacements to installation of handicap ramps and bathroom renovations like Layne’s.
Other projects have involved removal of asbestos from one home, installation of a drainage system and dehumidification system to relieve water issues in a basement, and many window-replacement initiatives. Meanwhile, the agency is undertaking more projects to replace heating systems with more modern — and green — systems.
Revitalize CDC hires licensed contractors to handle such work, obviously, Loveless said, adding that there is an emphasis on hiring minority- and women-owned firms. In some cases, the agency can get materials and labor donated, as it did for a veteran in Springfield who needed a new roof.
The Battle Is Joined
Ron Schneider, who served in the Army as an engineer building roads, tells a story somewhat similar to Layne’s, one of returning from service, launching a successful career, and then being beset with health problems that left him unable to do things around the house.
“I’m disabled, and I just can’t do much physically,” he said, noting that, in addition to his cancer fight, he has fought other health battles over the years.
As Ron’s condition deteriorated, and as needed work at his home on Prospect Gardens in Ludlow piled up — as noted earlier, many of the windows, originally installed in the 1940s, would no longer open or close easily, if at all — the Schneiders filled out an application for assistance through the JoinedForces program.
“Ron was a contractor for more than 40 years; these were all projects that he’s been hired to do over the course of his career that he can no longer do. For him, it was challenging; it was hard for him to be able to say ‘yes, I need help.”
That was prior to COVID, Ron said, adding that they received a call from Larocque early this year, and work commenced in phases this spring.
The first phase was replacement of the windows in April, work handled by a local contractor. Then, in May, Revitalize CDC joined forces (there’s that phrase again) with Home Depot, for a massive Volunteer Day effort at the home.
Cara Schneider put the improvements and what they mean to her husband and the rest of the family in their proper perspective.
“Ron was a contractor for more than 40 years; these were all projects that he’s been hired to do over the course of his career that he can no longer do. For him, it was challenging; it was hard for him to be able to say ‘yes, I need help,’ she said. “And then, to have these people come in and do it in a way that was respectful and that made our lives so much more functional and for him not to have to worry about these things while he’s going through treatment … it took all the stress off. And he’s able to open windows now.”
These sentiments hit at the true mission of the JoinedForces program, said Campiti, who has worked on dozens of projects over the past several years.
He said most are not large in scope, but can be rather involved. And in many cases, these are projects most contractors would pass on because of their degree of difficulty, the conditions in the home, or their small margin for real profit.
“I get involved with projects that other contractors look at, but they don’t even call them back,” Campiti said, adding that, in other cases, contractors will take on the work, but at a cost beyond what the veteran is willing or able to pay.
Such was the case with Layne, who said he looked into renovating his bathroom and installing a walk-in shower, but the cost was prohibitive. A friend, also a veteran, told him about Revitalize CDC, and he applied for assistance to undertake the bathroom renovation.
He was hesitant to install a walk-in shower in his main bathroom due to concerns about impact on the resale value of the home, but, after consultation with Campiti, was convinced that his half-bath, also home to his washer and dryer, could be renovated and outfitted with such a shower.
This was a fairly complicated project that involved moving the laundry equipment to the basement, constructing the shower, and redoing the floor, he went on, adding that it took several days to complete.
Overall, he’s working on two or three projects a month, most of them addressing the accessibility issues that many veterans face, whether it involves a bathtub, stairs, or a backyard deck.
“We do a lot of railings and grab bars in places that would be considered non-traditional,” he explained. “We put them in places beyond the bathroom, like with a person walking out to their patio; they can’t step down anymore.”
He stopped short of calling this work fun, but reiterated that it is gratifying on many levels.
On with the Fight
Returning to this concept of ‘his’ bathroom, Layne injected some needed background.
Indeed, he said he has four daughters, including twin 14-year-olds who still live at home.
“Bathroom time is extremely difficult to get,” he said with a laugh, adding that he obviously has to share his facility, which has actually become quite popular.
“They’ll say, ‘can I take a shower in your shower?’” he said of his children, adding that he used to ask why. “They say, ‘because it’s big; you can move around in there.’”
That’s because Campiti made it big enough to put in a chair, which is necessary, as Layne is prone to falling because his legs don’t move as they should.
It’s quite unfortunate that Layne, a veteran of two wars, needs this walk-in shower with all that room in it. But he — and his daughters, for that matter — are fortunate to have it.
And it was made possible by an agency with a name that truly says it all.