A Reason for Thanks in the Season of Giving

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For the past year and a half, a wheelchair-bound U.S. Army Veteran who served in the Vietnam War, has been using the YMCA for not only personal rehabilitation, but as a place to shower. Since moving to a Dayton Towers East building, he hasn’t been able to use the bathroom in his own apartment. But that’s about to change. Just as we come off the tails of Veterans Day and enter a holiday season of giving, the veteran will have much to be thankful for as a group of organizations and individuals, including FDNY Boxing, the Graybeards, Rockaway WISH and local contractor Eric Jahrnes, have come together to give their thanks to him in a big way.

For the past few years, FDNY Bravest Boxing has brought the ring to St. Camillus for Thrilla in Camilla, an event that raises money for Building Homes for Heroes, an organization that builds or renovates homes for U.S. veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, who are in need of an accessible residence. At this year’s Thrilla in Camilla in July, a local veteran in need of some help himself came out to show his support for the event.

Like many, the Vietnam vet, who chose to remain anonymous, was drafted at the time of the Vietnam War. He told The Rockaway Times that he was in Vietnam for about nine months in 1967. With his MOS, or military job, being a printer, the veteran says he was one of the lucky ones. “I was a printer, so I had a behind the scenes job, so I was lucky in that way.  But I had gone to the New York School of Printing and about 80 of us from the school were drafted, and just a little more than half of us came back,” he said.

The veteran may have been lucky to come back, but he dealt with a big personal hardship in October 2007, when he suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed on the left side of his body, and changed his life forever. No longer able to work, the veteran and his wife lost their home in Westchester. However about a year and a half ago, he was able to get into the affordable Mitchell-Lama development at 8000 Shore Front Parkway. But the apartment brought on a new challenge. While the veteran’s former home was accessible, the apartment is not. He resorted to going to the local YMCA to participate in water aerobics, which he says has helped with his mobility, but also to utilize the bathroom and shower there.

The veteran says the building managers tried to help by installing a higher toilet, but with a narrow doorway to get into the bathroom, it wasn’t much help. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs was also little help, since his handicap was non-service related. “The VA wouldn’t fix my bathroom or even consider giving me bar rails because I have a bathtub and they said it wasn’t safe to get in and out of it, even if I had railings. They didn’t want to be liable if I fell and it became an insurance issue,” he said.

With nowhere else to turn, the veteran went to Thrilla in Camilla in July. When FDNY Bravest Boxing president Bobby McGuire learned of his story, he was determined to take action. “It’s a shame when you think of Vietnam veterans, they were spit on and weren’t treated like any other veterans and no one really helps these guys, so we thought this was the right thing to do,” McGuire said.

However, going through Building Homes for Heroes wasn’t an option. “Unfortunately they were constricted by their bylaws and could only allocate funds for Afghanistan and Iraq veterans,” McGuire said. That wasn’t going to stop him. FDNY Bravest Boxing offered to donate the funds needed to renovate the veteran’s bathroom, but a contractor was still needed. That’s when McGuire turned to another local organization that’s big on helping those in need, including veterans. “The Graybeards have been doing this stuff for years, so I initially contacted president Joe Keenan to ask if he knew a contractor that could help and he immediately said he wanted to be a part of this,” McGuire said. The Graybeards pitched in $2,500 and when those in sister organization, Rockaway WISH, learned of the story, the group contributed an extra $500.

With the funding in hand, a contractor was still needed, and a stroke of luck led them to Eric Jahrnes, who owns the local contracting business, Final Home Renovations. “Work was very slow this year, so we’ve been doing a lot of small projects and trying to find things to keep our guys busy, so I put up a post on a Rockaway business Facebook page, saying that since the community has supported us for the last 10 years, we wanted to give back, so if anyone knew of someone that needed repairs on their house and couldn’t afford it, we’d get the job done,” Jahrnes said. That’s when someone from Building Homes for Heroes spotted the post and asked Jahrnes if he’d be willing to help a local veteran. For Jahrnes, it was a no brainer. “There’s nobody I’d rather do it for than for somebody who served our country. The military is one of the most important things in this country and I don’t think our vets are taken care of enough,” he said. Jarhnes says he initially offered to do the work for free, but the funding from FDNY Boxing, the Graybeards and WISH will help cover the cost of materials and labor for the not-for-profit project.

Starting either this week, or after Thanksgiving, construction will begin to give the veteran a new, handicap bathroom. “We’re going to remove his tub and put in a walk-in shower and widen the doorway so he can get his wheelchair in there, and we’ll add a handicap accessible sink,” Jahrnes explained, adding that the project should take only five days to complete. “We’re getting the job done and hopefully this guy will have a much easier life because of it,” McGuire said.

As we approach a day of giving thanks, the veteran says he could not be more thankful for FDNY Boxing, the Graybeards, WISH and Jarhnes coming together to help him. “I’m so grateful that they’re doing this. I’ve been, living here for a year and a half without being able to use my bathroom. This is really going to be a big help,” he said.

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