CASA GRANDE — Kim Vandenberg, director of Honoring/Hiring/Helping Our Heroes of Pinal County, is often moved to tears as she watches a formerly vacant building slowly being transformed into a welcoming and healing place for military veterans.
“I cry a lot watching as the center takes shape,” she said. “It’s been a lot of work and a lot of volunteer hours that have made it happen.”
This month, HOHP celebrates the one-year anniversary of the signing of a lease for the property at 5497 W. McCartney Road, a building once occupied by Horizon Health and Wellness. The 10,000-square-foot building was vacant and had been vandalized before it was gifted to HOHP.
It’s now being repurposed as a veteran transition center to help struggling veterans get back on their feet.
At the time the lease was signed, the amount of work needed to be done to make the building habitable again seemed intimidating, Vandenberg said.
But in the past year, a small army of volunteers has cleaned up the property, pulled weeds, painted, installed flooring, patched up holes, replaced lighting and worked to give the interior and exterior of the building a bright new look.
And although much work is left to be done — and a tentative opening date remains about a year in the future — the new vision of the center is now easier to see, Vandenberg said.
“It’s all starting to come together,” she said.
Among the first tasks volunteers completed was painting the interior walls in fresh white tones and removing the worn carpeting that covered much of the facility.
The flooring in some rooms has been replaced with wood-style laminate. Work on the remaining flooring will begin in October and will feature an epoxy finish with military symbols and other emblems worked into the design.
Rubber flooring will be added to the facility’s fitness room.
Udo Cook, who recently retired from a 25-year career with Abbott Nutrition, is doing much of the work himself along with volunteers.
“Our volunteers bring their creativity and specialties to the project,” Cook said. “One of our volunteers, Dave Blatt, specializes in plumbing and that has helped a lot with working on the bathrooms. We couldn’t do this without the volunteers.”
The transition center will open in four phases with the first focused on providing services aimed at helping homeless veterans, or those at risk of becoming homeless.
Initially, the facility will feature eight bedrooms and two handicapped-accessible bedrooms on the ground floor.
The east side of the building will serve as living space for those residing at the facility. As well as bedrooms, the east side of the building will feature a recreation area and a library or reflection room.
In the center of the ground floor is a large communal kitchen and dining area.
“We envision the residents eating at least one meal together every day,” Cook said.
Vandenberg said some social events, trainings and other public events could be held in the facility’s kitchen or dining area.
Other rooms on the ground floor include a fitness and locker room, staff offices, a conference room and a computer room for veterans to take classes, work on resumes and take credit rebuilding programs.
The upstairs of the facility includes more bedrooms and classroom space but Vandenberg said renovation of the upper floor will occur in later phases.
“For now, we’re focused on the ground floor,” she said.
Subsequent phases of the transition center will include support programs for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder as well as providing pre-employment, job training and family strengthening services.
While the outside of the main building remains its original pink color, and several broken windows need replacing, some work has begun on the exterior portions of the facility. It will eventually be painted tan.
Work on a smaller, 3,000-square-foot building behind the main building is nearly complete. Work crews installed new siding, drywall, doors and other elements to the building. Although it will eventually be converted into three classrooms, until the center opens, it will be used for storage.
A recreation area is being designed with five ramadas, a large one featuring a U.S. theme, another dedicated to prisoners of war and those who are missing in action and others dedicated to each branch of the military.
A gaming section will include horseshoe sets and cornhole boards.
The ramada area will serve as a gathering area for community events, including the HOHP’s planned 2020 Stand Down event in November.
Last November, a flag-raising event was held in the ramada area.
“The 2020 stand down will be the first COVID-era event we host here,” Vandenberg said.
Future plans for the exterior of the facility include redesigning an existing outdoor pond area into a screened-in relaxing place of healing with a water fountain, plants, seating and other features, Cook said.
“People can sit here and enjoy the sound of the water,” Cook said. “I envision it as a place to relax.”
On the west side of the facility’s outdoor space, where a statue now stands, crews will transform the area into a semi-secluded spot for reflection.
“When people visit the center, we want them to take pride in this place,” Cook said.
The transition center already has its first veteran success story, Vandenberg said.
“There was one vet who stayed here briefly to get back on his feet,” she said. “While he was here he helped out with some of the work while he got his benefits in order. He now has his own apartment in Casa Grande and is doing great. So the center has already helped one veteran.”
As work continues on the facility, HOHP is searching for businesses, individuals and organizations interested in sponsoring renovations of each room in the facility.
American Legion Post 9 in Florence has sponsored the renovation of the two handicapped-accessible bedrooms.
Remaining sponsorship opportunities range from $300 for some of the veteran resident rooms to $1,700 for the facility kitchen or $1,800 for the fitness room. The cost to sponsor one of the ramadas is $450.
For information on sponsoring a portion of the renovation, call Vandenberg at the HOHP main office in Casa Grande at 520-866-3645.