The Boothbay V.E.T.S. Walk-a-Thon for Homeless Veterans kicked off July 24 at Iron One Painting in Boothbay. The event is in support of veterans Ed Harmon’s and Arthur Richardson’s Boothbay Veterans Emergency Temporary Shelters (V.E.T.S.), a local effort to combat veterans’ homelessness.
Event co-chair Maine House 108 Rep. Shelley Rudnicki emceed the kickoff. She introduced co-chair U.S. Navy (ret.) Dr. Robert Clark and welcomed former first lady Anne LePage, Maine House 89 Rep. Holly Stover, veterans and their supporters to mark the first mile. The goal is to recruit more than 50 participants to raise a minimum of $15,000 by Sept. 24.
V.E.T.S. has converted 20 7-foot by 10-foot trailers into small shelters equipped with heating and a bed, small refrigerator and microwave. The finished units have gone out across Maine and efforts from distributors, volunteers and donors has made that work possible, said Harmon. He said the driving force for the trailers was discovering there are well over 200 homeless veterans in Maine and response to the crisis has consistently been, “there is nothing we can do.”
“So, what happens to a veteran? They’re put back on the ground again or in the back of a car or in somebody's garage and they don't know they're there sleeping in the freezing cold,” said Harmon. “It didn't sit good. To me, there's always a solution.”
Harmon said after receiving praise for his prototype drawings, no one would put money down to see it happen, so he went out, built the prototype and brought it around to meetings. Still, the best response he got was praise and not the funding he was hoping to get. However, while working on his drawings in a Staples, Harmon said he met a man who happened to be a Veterans Affairs attorney licensed in all 50 states. “He said anytime you need anything legal, you come and see me. So, I went and talked to the gentleman and he put us in for a 501(c)(3) for … absolutely free.”
Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck and all nonprofit applications were put on hold by Internal Revenue Services. Despite paying the premium for a fast-track application, Harmon was told it could take six months to a year for approval. However, in a matter of days after speaking with U.S. House Rep. Chellie Pingree’s office, V.E.T.S. was emailed its approval.
V.E.T.S. recruited local and big-box companies to help with materials: Lowe’s, Home Depot, Hancock Lumber and Seacoast Lumber. “Their answers to me were this: Ed, pick up the phone, tell me what you need and we'll have it. Come and get it tomorrow.' That's pretty huge.”
Maine Commissioner for Corrections Randall Liberty arranged for the prison workshop to build the cabinets that go in each of the trailers and Seacoast Lumber has been providing the materials for free. Harmon said the idea of helping veterans on the outside is important for veteran prisoners who want focus on helping others. “They were just beaming because they could help somebody on the outside, especially a brother or a sister.”
Rudnicki read aloud a letter from Liberty who pledged his support of Boothbay V.E.T.S. Liberty served in the Army, Army National Guard and Army reserves for more than 24 years in Italy, Korea and Fallujah, Iraq.
“I believe that when our brave men and women return that we have a duty to assist them in their transition … In addition to the unacceptable high rate of veteran suicide of 22 per day, homelessness plagues our veterans. The Maine Department of Corrections is pleased to have partnered with Boothbay V.E.T.S. to build interior shelving and furniture for the housing units and stands ready to do much more. I would be honored to bring the housing units into the Maine State Prison and grow our commitment to assist with the building of these beautiful trailers … No Maine veteran should ever be homeless. I commend the hard work and commitment of Ed Harmon and Arthur Richardson for serving those who have served so honorably.”
With two more trailers on the way to the peninsula, the program will have a fleet of 23; however, it costs around $5,000 to convert a trailer. That is, in part, where the Walk-a-Thon will help, said Rudnicki and Clark who connected on the idea months ago over dinner.
“Something was stirred in my soul,” said Clark. “So, throughout the following three weeks after that day, I've been bending the ear of Shelley and Peter, their spouses and my spouse and they motivated me in a way I really can't put into words … My father-in-law, a retired Baptist preacher … said, 'well, if you meet their needs, then you can help people.' Just helping for the sake of helping doesn't do any good, we've got to meet a need. This is a serious need.”
Clark said veterans are often brought home, but all-too-often never completely. “They’re lost,” he said. “My brothers and sisters are hurting and they need help. Please help.”
LePage said before, during and after her husband Paul’s tenure as governor, she has always been proud to join in events like Wreathes Across America and with programs like the Travis Mills Foundation to honor veterans and to teach children the value of freedom. She said the thought that there are homeless veterans in Maine is sickening and programs and events like V.E.T.S and the Walk-a-Thon are important to solving the crisis.
“This is a great way folks can get some exercise or just go about their normal day and walk for homeless vets. They can walk the local trails, the malls, the school tracks, walking the dogs, mowing the lawn, going to the gym or just meeting friends and walking together.”
LePage said most of her miles will come from her job at Cook's Landing in Edgecomb where she is a server. She said she is constantly tracking how far she walks and continue using her FitBit to track her progress.
“This is going to be for a great cause … Every pledge helps, so let's all just put our sneakers on, let's all do our part big or small and do it for a great cause.”
Stover said she brought Harmon and Richardson to the State House this spring for a Spirit of America award. They brought a trailer to Augusta for the legislature to see and received kudos from both sides of the aisle, she said.
“This is a bipartisan issue, this is everybody's issue,” said Stover. “What I love most, having worked in mental health for much of my career, is that these trailers go out to where people need them … These trailers are one of the ways … veterans can get the services where they want them, when they want them. Don't we all want to live where we want, the way that we want? This does that. I'm so proud this is in Boothbay, I'm so proud of these men and women and all of you, the volunteers and (donors).”
Stover said she will be walking for her father, Manley, and two uncles Jerry and Arthur Barlow. Manley and Jerry returned from combat, but Arthur was lost in Korea and Jerry died homeless two years ago, she said. “I'll be walking with my uncles and for them. I'll be walking in memory of my dad and I'll be walking and raising money.”
The Walk-a-Thon (see attached pledge form) will wrap up Sept. 24 at the Victor Grange in Fairfield where attendees will walk their final five miles before having lunch. Those who raise $100 or more in tax-deductible donations will get a free tee-shirt. For more information about Boothbay V.E.T.S., visit https://boothbayvets.weebly.com/