Volunteers, Community Repair Disabled Veteran’s Home

Scott St. John of Duluth, Minn., is a disabled veteran who needed help but was virtually invisible to the community around him. The 69-year-old Vietnam veteran had served his nation with distinction as a U.S. Army military policeman in Vietnam in 1965-66, and returned home to carry on with his life not knowing that his body would be racked by illnesses related to Agent Orange exposure.

As years passed by, St. John became more disabled. He underwent surgery on his feet and ankles which left him unable to walk and barely able to stand. After two months recovering in the hospital, he returned to his life in a house trailer, remaining mostly indoors. He was only able to get outside with the assistance of his wife and son, who physically carried him. He wears surgical boots on both feet. Unable to maintain his trailer, St. John’s home fell into disrepair and he faced possible eviction.

Not knowing where to turn, St. John’s wife, Tina, called the Department of Minnesota 2nd Junior Vice Commander Durbin Keeney for help getting a dumpster to carry away the scrap from any repairs they could make. Keeney immediately recognized that since St. John needed help, he was a good candidate for the DAV Local Veterans Assistance Program.

“The Local Veterans Assistance Program was created to give volunteers the opportunity to provide needed assistance to veterans within their communities,” said National Voluntary Services Director Ron Minter. “Our members and others can offer a helping hand to improve the lives of our veterans.”

“This is one of the examples of what our program can do,” said National Headquarters Executive Director Marc Burgess. “DAV’s efforts on behalf of the St. John family show how much can be accomplished when volunteers put their hearts and minds to helping another disabled veteran.”

“I knew the DAV and the community could provide for St. John as no one else could,” said Keeney. “There was an outpouring of support from the community – businesses, veterans organizations and individual volunteers.”

Enlisting the help of Home Depot, a private contractor, along with volunteers from DAV Chapter 6 and others, Keeney set out on a plan not only to clean up St. John’s residence, but to make it more accessible.

“When I spoke with Scott it was like hearing my own story,” said Keeney. “The trailer was in disrepair and Scott couldn’t walk. More than a clean-up was needed.” One member of a local veterans group had a radio program, and when St. John’s needs were broadcast, more than $1,650 was raised in under two hours.

“There was a tremendous outpouring from the community,” said Keeney. “A local supermarket even provided food for the volunteers.”

Using business donations, Keeney and the volunteers obtained the necessary building permits with the help of the contractor, and in less than a month were ready to get started. St. John and his family were spirited away from their home to allow the work to be a surprise.

Among the volunteers was an Iraq War veteran who said the day he worked was his best since returning home in 2006. A local news reporter was so impressed with the story that she returned the next day to paint with the veterans. “Other veterans joined as members of the DAV after seeing what the organization does,” said Keeney. “It was cold work. We had to fight the cold and sleet to get the work done, but we did it.”

Volunteers added a new door, windows, siding, insulation, landscaped a front garden and erected a flagpole. The contractor built a ramp to make the trailer more accessible, and the DAV obtained a donated scooter so that St. John could easily move in and out of the trailer without assistance. Work was started on a Thursday and was finished on Sunday. An estimated $10,000 in building supplies was donated by Home Depot.

“It was a great time for the community,” said Keeney. “The DAV provided for him as no one else could. We were blessed to have the opportunity to do this.

“Today, the trailer looks great, and St. John is no longer threatened with eviction,” said Keeney. “All the work was professional and done very well.”

St. John was overwhelmed when he saw what had been accomplished. “I want to thank everyone that’s been here to help,” he said. “I really appreciate all their help. It makes it easier for my wife to get me in and out, and I have more independence and self-esteem.”

The following Monday, St. John visited with Keeney and proudly proclaimed that he was able to get his mail. “Isn’t that amazing,” said St. John.

“I didn’t know that much about the DAV until recently,” he said. “I am going to join the DAV. The DAV really helped, and I wish I could do something for everyone.”

But the work is far from finished. “We will go back in the spring to check everything,” said Keeney. “We plan to replace the windows that were repaired. And we’re going to assist St. John in filing VA claims to make the trailer more accessible. We’re not done yet.”

“St. John is an example of the disabled veterans who need help, but rarely seek it out,” said Minter. “There are many more out there, and it’s our job to find these veterans and help them as only veterans helping veterans can do.”