Post renovates home for veteran and his disabled son

Andrew Smith had a Father’s Day he’ll remember for quite some time, thanks to American Legion Post 171 in Cripple Creek, Colo.

The post led an ambitious effort to return Smith, a disabled Marine veteran and single dad of an 8-year-old special needs child, to his home after mold and other problems made it uninhabitable.

“The weight of the world has been lifted off my shoulders,” said Smith, who had estimated it would take him at least five years to be able to live in his home again. “I bumped into some people with The American Legion, some really good friends. They stepped in and they told me and my kid that we wouldn’t be out of our home for long. And they were right. It’s not even a year later and we are back in our home. It’s humbling to say the least.”

The 10-month transformation included completely redoing all of the plumbing and electrical, adding a back deck overlooking the picturesque town, and building a ramp for Laren, who has muscular dystrophy.

“You can’t hear the wind through the walls anymore. You can’t hear the wind through the windows anymore,” Smith said. “I used to be in constant fear of my kid falling down and getting hurt on a nail or something. He was always sick with some sort of respiratory infection. I feel like I don’t have to worry about that anymore.”

There were at least 65 volunteers who worked on the house, combining for more than 2,500 volunteer hours. Over two dozen businesses and individuals contributed material donations.

In all, nearly 200 people from 32 states and Washington, D.C., donated money to the project.

“The community stepped up big time,” said Curt Sorenson, project leader and Post 171 senior vice commander. “Unreal how the support came in. And often, when we needed something (snaps his fingers) … it was there. This was a community — local, state and national — community effort.”

For example, Sorenson noted the donation from a widow of a World War II veteran from Corpus Christi, Texas. “She said she didn’t have a lot of money but wanted to contribute to this cause,” he said. “She sent us $35. If that doesn’t warm your heart, I don’t know what does.”

Among the donations from American Legion Family members was a check from Post 1034 in Wallkill, N.Y. “I can think of no deed more fulfilling than to reach out and help not only a fellow veteran in need but also a disabled child. It truly embraces what The American Legion is all about,” wrote post Adjutant Bob McDermott.

While the town of Cripple Creek is one of the world’s largest producers of gold, it’s resources are limited. Post members often had to drive 50 or more miles to connect with retailers that could help refurbish the home. That’s why the support was critical to the project’s success.

“Veterans help veterans and the nation at large wanted to be a part of this activity,” Sorenson said. “We’re thrilled. I can’t tell you how proud I am of this post, this town, this state and this nation, stepping up and helping this kid out.”

Among the key contributors was the Home Depot in Canon City — 42 miles away — that provided a $10,500 grant for the deck and flooring and a $5,000 gift card for the kitchen cabinets. “They also brought in 20 people — in a snowstorm — to build the deck. Unbelievable,” Sorenson said.

Becky Nation, who was the Home Depot store manager at Canon City during the project, jumped on the opportunity to assist.

“Being a disabled veteran hits my moral values, Home Depot’s moral values,” she said. “It’s part of what we stand for as a company. Just knowing that he was out of his home, and his special-needs child was out of his home as well, really touched me as a parent.”

Department Commander Jay Bowen saw the house at its worst and now at its best.

“It’s absolutely amazing,” Bowen said. “I still can’t believe that I was here just a few months ago. It was pretty much still gutted then. This is perseverance. This is a labor of love. This is everything we stand for.

“What a great way to spend Father’s Day.”

Bowen pointed out how the project reflects the values of the founders of The American Legion.

“Our organization is built on four pillars,” he noted. “First and foremost is taking care of veterans and their families. This exemplifies what that means. There is no better way of showing how we do that than what this post has done for Andrew Smith and his family.”

Post 171 Adjutant Rich Ingold says the community is supportive because of how the Legion has led by example.

“It’s all about having a mission,” he said. “In this case we had a mission, a worthy cause recognized by post members and the community. They all got behind it. When you are actually active in doing things, various projects, then other people want to become involved. It becomes infectious.

“We’re being branded as ‘doers,’ and that’s one reason why people who aren’t Legion members wanted to help.”

Post 171 will continue to do community service projects. Up next: cleaning up 124 veterans burial plots at a nearby cemetery. “We want to fence it in, put in walkways and put up a flag pole, make it a respectful place for American Legion members and their spouses,” Ingold said.

To close the chapter on the house project, the post coordinated a special Father’s Day celebration at the home. More than 50 community members showed up to support the Smith family. Department Chaplain Stan Hamamoto blessed the house. The town presented Smith with a framed certificate of occupancy. While some cosmetic work remains — painting the exterior — Smith and Laren are settling back into their community.

Looking back, Smith recalls the struggles he and his son had when mold was overtaking the home. “Two years ago, we were living on the side of a cliff. Now we are safe.”

They had been living with Smith’s mother in Oklahoma after the house was condemned. A few days ago was the first time that Laren had returned to Cripple Creek since work had begun on the house.

“He looked up at me and said, ‘Daddy, it sure is good to be home again.’”