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OCTOBER 20, 2011 A true success story POST ACTIVITIES

Post 526 in Asheville, N.C., doubles as a homeless shelter for veterans. And it works. By Steve B. Brooks

To say the Veterans Restoration Quarters and

Transitional Housing facility in Asheville, N.C., saved Ron Kennedy’s life might sound a bit dramatic. Unless you ask Kennedy himself. T e son of an abusive father, Kennedy began drink-

ing when he was a teenager. He went into the U.S. Army and served from 1976-1982, got married when he leſt the military, and eventually got divorced eight years aſt er the marriage started. He battled depression and continued to drink heavily as he traveled across the country, working part-time jobs in the process. Kennedy was at rock bottom when he settled in

North Carolina and eventually was living in the woods just off a state highway. “It was bad,” Kennedy said. “I kept praying that I would wake up from this nightmare. I was having suicidal thoughts. I was, in every form, a broken man.” T rough a recommendation from a veterans coordi-

nator, Kennedy made his way to the Asheville Bun- combe Community Christian Ministry (ABCCM) homeless shelter, was put on a waiting list and eventu- ally got a bed in the shelter. But he continued to drink on and off , violating the rules of the shelter. “T ey could have told me to hit the road,” Kennedy said. “But they didn’t, and I was able to get a few clean months under my belt.” Kennedy got a paying job working the front desk at

the facility, but his old nemesis – alcohol – made one fi nal attempt to take back control of the veteran’s life. Feeling a need to celebrate, Kennedy bought a six pack of beer, walked to a section of woods, sat down and opened the beer. But, “T ere was nothing happy about this,” he said. “I was really sad. I realized I needed to make a choice. I had three or so beers, and on the fourth one I just stopped and started praying to God. I asked him to show me what to do.” Kennedy went back to ABCCM’s shelter and that’s

when his life turned away from alcoholism for good. T e facility was in the process of transitioning into a new facility in a former Super 8 motel in Asheville, and the program’s director, Michael Reich, asked Kennedy if he wanted to be on the advance team. Kennedy did so, and then took a job at the front desk once the new Veteran’s Restoration Quarters and Transitional Housing was opened in December 2007 along Tunnel Road in Asheville. A few months later, Reich asked Kennedy about taking the position of front desk

STEPPING from Page 5 When the $88,000 mark was reached

to cover furniture in each apartment, the Legion family moved on to fund other amenities for the facility, such as com- puters, recreation equipment and household appliances. “It grew from bedrooms to us furnish-

ing every piece of furniture in the building,” Looby says. Located in the town of Winslow,

Veterans Haven is a public facility funded by state and federal entities, including VA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Residents are funneled into its confi nes by VA, which evaluates veterans and deems them eligible for transitional housing. Veterans who wish to reside in Veterans Haven must agree to adhere to the facility’s long-term program. T at commitment entails not only

fi nding steady employment, but also becoming a productive member of society. T e facility tries to make that

supervisor. Stunned, Kennedy accepted, and he now still holds that position – along with intake specialist – and oversees a staff of 16 men. And he does so in a building not far from the woods where he once nearly drank himself to death. “T is place, the people here, they

believed in me,” said Kennedy, who still resides in the shelter in a Program Free Room, which means he pays rent and buys his own food. “And I could have moved out of here two, two and a half years ago. But it’s not about the money. It’s so important for me to have the camaraderie I get here. It’s important for me to show other people who come here that this isn’t a fi nal outcome.” Kennedy’s success story is one of

many that have been created through the Veterans Restoration Quarters, which isn’t simply a homeless shelter. T e facility does have 148 beds through the Department of Veterans Aff airs per diem program. Veterans can stay there for up to two years and are provided a cubical with a bed, as well as meals, laundry services and case management. As they go through the program, they can advance to more private rooms within the facility. T e facility off ers an employment training track that

can include either attending school or being placed in a job-training program. T e facility off ers training in culinary arts, hospitality, truck driving and health care. And for disabled veterans who cannot work, there is the option to go to school and do volunteer work. And classes are available to the residents that include anger and stress management, chemical dependency, money management and GED/tutoring. T e facility also receives support from the Legion’s

Department of North Carolina and serves as the home of Post 526. “T is is a jewel in our crown when you talk about T e American Legion in North Carolina,” immediate Past Department Commander Bill Oxford said. “It’s really a shining light for veterans.” “T e circle wasn’t complete until T e American

Legion became involved,” said Scott Rogers, executive of

goal as reachable as possible, employing a 24-hour staff that includes both health- care professionals and vocational counselors who can procure jobs for the residents. “We’ve had guys who we just got

jobs fl ipping burgers down the street at Checkers,” Van Lew says. “Next thing you know, they’re a regional manager there.” Veterans Haven has what it deems an

about 75-percent success rate in transi- tioning its residents into society. T at transition usually includes some form of recovery, as veterans who live there oſt en have backgrounds with substance-abuse problems, Van Lew says. During their stay, they’re randomly drug-tested and expected to remain clean. Eventually, as they fi nd employment, they’re given more responsibilities, such as earmark- ing a portion of their wages as rent, and developing a savings account that facility counselors help them manage. T ey leave the facility not only back on their feet, but on a trajectory toward

Above: The Veterans Restoration Quarters has a state-of-the-art kitchen that serves as the site for culinary arts training. Left: Ron Kennedy (right), a former resident at Post 126, now doubles as the facility’s front desk supervisor and intake specialist. Adam Taylor

ABCCM, a cooperative ministry of more than 250 churches that was formed to respond to emergency assistance needs in the community. “And Ron is proof that, ‘I did it. You can do it too.’” Kennedy has served as post commander and said the

post brings additional camaraderie between the quarters residents. “When you serve in the military, protecting your country, it’s an honor,” Kennedy said. “T at is something that veterans share. T e post gives us a chance to share in that bond. When we formed this post, we felt it was about time we started taking some more pride in ourselves. “T is place helps rehabilitate you in so many diff er-

ent ways: your mind, your spirit, your education and your fi nances. But most of all, it provides you a sort of community, and that’s something everyone needs. You can go to school or go to work, but if you’re not part of something, you still have those gaps in your life. T is place fi lls in those gaps.”

For more success stories like Ron Kennedy’s, go to

leading a productive life. “Most [of] these guys, all they need is a chance,” Van Lew says. T anks to the new building, the facility will be able to almost double its resident capacity. Aptly named, Veterans Haven is a

refuge of sorts from the “hustle and bustle” atmosphere that encapsulates the tri-state area. It’s located in a sparsely populated area of New Jersey, in some- what rural surroundings. Van Lew says the facility’s location has been para- mount to its success. “It’s really important to get the guys

away from that temptation and out of that environment,” he says. “It’s good to give the guys an environment where they can focus on what they’re here for, away from any triggers that might set them off .” But Veterans Haven wasn’t so far off

the beaten path that it escaped Looby’s radar. During his year as department commander, he stressed raising money for it during every offi cial visit he made to counties in New Jersey. He and his

staff used social networking and newslet- ters to get the word out that construction on a housing project for homeless veterans could potentially be halted because of unanticipated costs. Legion family members in New Jersey

sprang to action, donating what the state’s Department of Military and Veterans Aff airs says is the highest amount ever raised by a veterans service organization. “I think homelessness among veterans

is something that is always on the minds of all veterans, especially of the Vietnam era,” Looby says. “It’s at a crisis level now.” A former Army Ranger who deals

with homeless veterans on a daily basis, Van Lew can only agree. “T ere’s a need to help the homeless

veteran population,” he says. “It’s the least we can do for people who laid their lives on the line to protect the freedoms that we all live with every day. T e least we can do is to try to help them be successful.”

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