Volunteers use elbow grease for vets’ housing project

More than 360 volunteers packed the tent on Saturday, where they received instructions on safety at the job site, a vacant lot at Division Street and East Avenue R, where 56 homes for veterans and their families will be built — a project of the nonprofit organization Homes4Families. (Courtesy photograph by John Wartinger )

Fences went up May 11 on a vacant lot at Division Street and Avenue R, the site being developed as a Veterans Enriched Neighborhood by nonprofit group Homes4Families, which relies on volunteer workers and contributed funds to build single-family houses for veterans and their families — some of whom currently live on the street and others that may be cramped into a one bedroom apartment for a family of five or more.

Administrators at Homes4Families plan to construct 56 houses on the Palmdale property, donated by the city. Formerly homeless veterans will have a place to hang their hat in the form of home ownership, but there are qualifications because nothing comes free. They must be employed but considered low-income. Monthly mortgage payments will be made affordable, based on their income.

Saturday’s WE BUILD event is one program of Homes4Families that focuses on Women’s Empowerment. It was intentionally scheduled the day before Mother’s Day to provide women and their daughters an opportunity to work side-by-side on a project that benefits veterans.

At 9 a.m., event co-chairwomen Lily Knight, wife of former Congressman Steve Knight, R-Palmdale, and Palmdale resident Rose Rockey welcomed the crowd for a flag salute.

Donna Deutchman, chief executive officer of Homes4Families, said more than 360 people volunteered that day, including Palmdale Mayor Steve Hofbauer and family, for one of the biggest turnouts the organization has ever seen.

Also in attendance were State Sen. Scott Wilk and State Assemblyman Tom Lackey.

A safety briefing followed about the raw terrain that was uneven and bumpy, requiring good balance, like someone walking on stilts. In fact, Northrop Grumman employee Daniel Tucker graciously helped one senior citizen maneuver her way across the field to a tent where everyone gathered.

At the safety orientation, volunteers were cautioned to watch where they stepped. They should never walk backwards because they could end up in a ditch. Bottled water was everywhere. Volunteers were told to keep hydrated under the Valley’s hot sun and apply sunblock when necessary. They were also encouraged to take rest periods under the tent.

Front row, from left: Larry Sands; Joshua Morrow; Kim Hofbauer Morrow; Barbara Hofbauer; and Mayor Steve Hofbauer. Back row, from left: Suzann Reina; Chris Fraga-Saenz, City Housing Commissioner; Alisha Semchuck; Debbie Rutkowski-Hines, Library Trustee and Robin Strumlauf. (Photograph courtesy of Steve Hofbauer)

Types of jobs for the volunteers varied. The difficulty was ranked by hard hats, with the easiest assignments given one hard hat and the toughest categorized by four hard hats.

Some volunteers worked on the fences. Others built block walls and the remainder committed themselves to art projects, an equally important function that demanded less physical effort.

Hofbauer sponsored the event with a team of 10 that included his wife, Barbara, his daughter, son-in-law and sister-in-law, in addition to friends and other associates.

“We were building the block walls,” Hofbauer said. “Part of the crew with me were building blocks. Part of the crew built split-rail fences.” He said his daughter was digging holes to set posts in concrete. Those volunteers also painted stain on the split-rail fences.

Barbara Hofbauer was setting the blocks for the block walls. “That’s why she was able to skip the gym yesterday,” the mayor joked.

“I mentioned (to the crowd) sold out capacity that day demonstrates the commitment of Antelope Valley and Palmdale residents to our veterans,” the mayor said.

“I had a lot of people asking about this event. I told them there’s a job for everybody,” he said.

The people working on art projects under the tent could choose from cutting out words and pictures in magazines or cutting out suns and sun rays from construction paper, or cutting tree barks, leaves and branches, also from construction paper.

Veterans use the various clippings to create art that expresses their emotions and essentially serves as a voice to tell their stories — what they experienced while serving, and what they have been experiencing since returning to civilian life. Words like cry, anger, sadness, loneliness and others are used when they create a montage. Sometimes they add a picture clipped from a magazine — it could be a gun or a tent. It could be a helicopter or whatever.

Volunteers needing a more gentle assignment worked on art projects for the veterans, clipping photos and random words from magazines and cutting out leaves, tree trunks and branches from construction paper. From left: Barbara Ott, Monet Gipson and Debbie Rutkowski-Hines. (Photograph by Alisha Semchuk)

They also make books incorporating pages of their art.

The art work helps other veterans who endured the same experiences, according to Pamela Braly, the Enrichment Program Development Consultant at Homes4Families. “We’re always working with these veterans.

“People working in the Art Group shouldn’t feel like they’re not contributing because they’re not out in the field,” Braly said.

John Wartinger, Veteran Services Specialist at Homes4Families concurred. “It’s so incredibly important putting things together,” he said. Veterans might make a book for their children. “Why is mommy angry? Why is daddy angry?” Veterans want their loved ones to understand as they try to assimilate in civilian life.

Barbara Ott, whose family is in the recycling business, was among the volunteers working on art projects along with Debbie Rutkowski-Hines, a school principal at Westside Union School District, and Monet Gipson, a Lockheed Martin employee who has worked on these projects in other communities in the past.

Rutkowski-Hines said, “We have a lot of veterans concentrated out here and as we can tell from news reports, a lot of our veterans are suffering with lingering physical and mental problems. I think it’s our duty to help them assimilate successfully into the larger community.”

“We cannot do this without your support,” said Donielle DeLeon, director of Corporate and Community Engagement at Homes4Families. “This event has been sold out. We are so grateful. We have a lot of wall left to build. We have another event like this coming up the first weekend of September.” For more information on the project, including future volunteer opportunities, visit www.homes4families.org