American Legion Veterans Housing Inc. (ALVHI), an expansive homeless veterans housing project founded by Connecticut Legionnaires, was born through the generosity and welcoming spirit of the locals in Jewett City, Conn. It's only fitting that the revolutionary housing project got its biggest and most important financial contribution through an act of generosity and goodwill.
Last month, Michael Guty, a 92-year-old World War II veteran, gave an $800,000 donation to La-Flamme Kusek Post 15 in Jewett City – the post that maintains ALVHI and houses some of the program's rent-free apartments for homeless veterans in the upstairs of its building. Guty made the gift to honor those who have served and fulfill a long-time promise to his friend, Bill Czmyr, a local Legionnaire who started ALVHI by cultivating the generosity of individuals like Guty.
Czmyr, Connecticut Department Commander Wayne Morgan, National Executive Committeeman Rich Anderson and other Legionnaires were all on hand at Bride Brook Health & Rehab Center, saluting Guty as he made the donation official. A recent probate court decision allowed Guty to donate the money now, instead of through testate, due to his advanced dementia.
The money will be invested in the post's endowment, which funds ALVHI and the post's outreach programs. Czmyr said the donation will help the post with upkeep costs associated with the complex, which is spread out into two connected buildings and features amenities and 18 apartments for homeless veterans.
"They're going to have an endowment sitting there giving them operating funds for the next 30, 40 or 50 years," said Carl Brown, vice president and treasurer of ALVHI. Brown added that the housing project will also look into expanding into nearby lots to provide parking or green space for residents.
The idea for ALVHI was hatched by Czmyr, who began floating the concept around town in 2003. Czmyr, a member of Post 15, realized that his post's upstairs was vacant and decided that it was the perfect setting for the rent-free apartments. He gathered the support of fellow post members and residents of Jewett City – many of whom, like Brown, aren't even veterans.
The project's grassroots beginning steam rolled into an ambitious, $5.2 million initiative that drew support from the state VA and lawmakers like Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn. Courtney's $200,000 earmark paved the way for a $3.8 million pledge from the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority and other significant donations.
Soon, ALVHI began drawing national attention for its revolutionary approach to the homeless veterans problem. Plenty of housing projects offered free living space to homeless veterans but only on a temporary basis. None had ever offered permanent housing like ALVHI does.
ALVHI opened its doors and began housing the 16 veterans currently living there in June. It was a few months later that Czmyr got a call from an attorney representing Guty who told Czmyr that she needed to see him about a donation that Guty wanted to make.
Guty had long promised Czmyr that he'd make a donation to Post 15 and its pet project.
"He offered to give the money a while back," Czmyr said. "He would tell me that every so often when he stopped by (the post). He never told me how much and I never asked. I just told him it would be appreciated."
Over the years, Czmyr and Guty fostered a friendship typical of two old veterans. The two grew close sitting at the post and coffee shops around town, sharing stories and enjoying each others' company. Guty often mentioned that he'd provide some financial help to Post 15 someday, even though he wasn't a member there.
"I never doubted that it would come," Czmyr said. "When he told me he was going to leave me some money, I never figured it would be for that amount."
The donation amount surprised not only Czmyr, but other people who were close to Guty. A retired power plant worker, Guty lived a modest and frugal life, driving an old pick-up truck and spending his free time in his garden. His family immigrated to the United States from Ukraine in the 1930s and settled in nearby Canterbury, Conn., where they ran a chicken farm.
Today, Guty's health isn't bad for an individual of his advanced age, but his dementia has affected him to the point that he can't have the spirited conversations that he once enjoyed with Czmyr. Still, he recognizes a friendly face when he sees it.
"Me and my son, the (post) commander, went down to Bridle Brook," Czmyr said. "He was in a wheelchair and looked like he was sleep. I told him who I was, he opened his eyes and started to smile. It turned out it was just his nap time."
Czmyr says Guty's memory and generosity will forever be remembered with a commemorative plaque that will be featured in the post's lobby.
"It will be there to always recognize him. We gave him one too," Czmyr said.
Guty's memory will also live on through the dividends that his donation will pay, which Brown says gives financial solace to the post and its housing project for the foreseeable future.
"That to me is a big blessing," Brown said. "(Post 15) gave up everything, but it has come back tenfold."