Like nearly every nonprofit, the Massachusetts-based Homes for our Troops (HFOT) has faced challenges during the coronavirus pandemic.
Revenue is down 20 to 25%, said Executive Director Bill Ivey, and social distancing on construction sites has slowed home builds by two to four weeks. But the organization continues to press on building specially adapted homes for the severely injured post-9/11 veterans.
“We’ve halted new construction projects, but we still have 25 under construction that will keep moving forward,” said Ivey. “We’re still out here. We still have veterans we want to serve.”
One of the organization’s latest builds will begin in Pensacola this week for U.S. Army SPC Elliot Smith, but due to the rapid number of cases in Escambia County, the groundbreaking ceremony will be online via Zoom. It’s just one of the ways Homes for our Troops is adapting.
“We base those decisions on what’s going on in the particular area,” said Ivey. “It’s better to err on the side of safety.”
Ivey will be speaking from a Zoom virtual conference Saturday morning, along with guest speakers, and Smith. The groundbreaking ceremonies are typically a way for guests and neighbors to learn more about the HFOT recipient.
A Zoom is “not quite the same” as the typical in-person event, admits Ivey. He hopes to have a more-traditional ceremony in about six to eight months when the home is completed.
Homes for Our Troops has completed 295 homes in 42 different states since it was founded in 2004. Not only are homes custom-built for veterans and their specific disabilities, but they are mortgage-free. But Ivey said the mission doesn’t end there. Veterans are also linked to financial planners to help with expenses such as insurance and property taxes — although in the state of Florida, taxes are exempt for veterans who are 100% disabled as a result of service.
“We’re not just building homes, but rebuilding lives,” he said.
SPC Elliot Smith said he believes the home will be a “brand-new start” for him. Born and raised in Mississippi, he’s come to know Pensacola as home working with local organizations such as POE in Action, which offers assistance to homeless vets, and America's Heroes Enjoying Recreation Outdoors, which connects veterans with outdoor activities.
Smith joined the Army in April 2004 and was deployed that December to Iraq. While on a search for bombs, he lost his right leg when became pinned against a wall by an M1 Abrams battle tank. When he returned to the U.S., he began fighting another battle – the one with himself.
“When I came home, I was in Washington, D.C., and saw hundreds of guys who were injured a lot worse than me,” he said. “I kept thinking, ‘why are all of these lives destroyed?’ I couldn’t find an answer. Nobody could understand what I was going through, and I started drinking.”
Around 2009, Smith got help from a treatment facility and started to make peace with all he had been through. He came to terms with his disability and even ran two half-marathons and one full marathon.
Before his injury, things like wider hallways and lower cabinets weren’t challenges he had to think about. When he’s not wearing his prosthetic leg, he uses a wheelchair to get around. And it has made him see the world differently, he said.
“A six-inch crack in the concrete is a big deal,” he said.
But in his new home, life will be just a little bit easier.
“It’s a lot of stress off my mind,” he said. “This will be a life-changer.”
You can watch the Zoom groundbreaking ceremony by requesting the link here.