I arrived in Howell, Michigan to a flurry of smiling workers in day-glow orange, rushing like bees swarming around a hive. Golden leaves barely clung to branches, flitting as the orange shirts rushed underneath them. Cool morning light filtered down, making a strobe-like effect that mimicked the frenetic pace below. It reminded me of relatives setting up for a family reunion.
I was at the house where Stiggy’s Dogs, a Detroit-area nonprofit running out of the kindness of hearts and the generosity of strangers, was getting a facelift. As a part of the Home Depot Foundation’s “Celebration of Service” campaign, I was invited to see the improvements being made by volunteers, and talk about what can be done for the military community.
First I had the privilege of sharing a meal with Home Depot CEO Frank Blake. I was initially intimidated by his resume: Harvard undergrad and then Columbia Law, clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stevens, deputy counsel to then Vice President George H.W. Bush, general counsel for the EPA, and general counsel at General Electric. It seemed like the work of five men, not one. But that all dissipated as he approached. Blake was unassuming and downright regular; he wore a ball cap and the same bright orange shirt the workers had on, with a dark windbreaker and a small styrofoam cup full of black coffee. He was engaging and inquisitive, genuinely interested in the concept of blogging and how we tell our stories. His eyes laughed before he did, and I found him to be humble and easy.
We talked about what the conversation sounded like in the board room when Home Depot decided to focus on Veterans. He said it was a natural “no-brainer” because of the product Home Depot supplied and the fact that over 35,000 employees were Veterans. He said, “I know that when these folks return from duty the last thing they want to do is sit behind a desk.” But it made even more sense to me when he started to tell the story of the year his son, a U.S. Army soldier, was in Middle East. He talked about how he watched the news and waited for some communication, focusing his attention on what was happening over there. He said he soon noticed it was a state of mind the general population didn’t experience, and he wanted to support an ongoing effort to recognize servicemembers after they came home.
He sure has done a phenomenal job accomplishing just that. The Home Depot Foundation has dedicated $80 million to Veterans’ projects.
We walked toward the project site, where over 200 Home Depot volunteers had already gathered and were hard at work on their day off. Guess who jumped in to help, and got down on his hands and knees right next to them?
They were winterizing the house by updating insulation, replacing seals, installing new air filters, adding weatherproof doors, filling cracks with expanding foam sealant, and installing programmable thermostats. They told me it’s a focus for most of the facilities they overhaul, because it reduces a nonprofit’s monthly bills; heating and cooling costs account for nearly half of the average total energy bill, as much as $400 a year.
They were replacing older appliances like the refrigerator, washer, and dryer, with energy star models, and replacing lighting throughout the house with Energy-efficient light bulbs (CFL). They were building decks and widening doorways and leveling off surfaces throughout the house, so that the entire main floor was wheelchair accessible for the wounded Veterans served by the facility. There were plenty of aesthetic improvements too, from weeding and mulching in the serenity garden to planting winter-over annuals in the beds near the entrance. There was even a beautiful cedar fence and a brand new sign for the front drive, bearing the nonprofit’s new logo.
It was then that I finally had a chance to talk to the organization’s founder, Jennifer Petre, who was constantly racing around in jeans and a sweatshirt right alongside the workers on site. When her nephew, a corpsman known as “Doc Stiggy,” died in an IED explosion while serving his country in Helmund Province, Afghanistan in September 2009, she wanted to do something in his memory. Ben was dedicated to the health of those in his care. Through her professional experience with animal control facilities, Jennifer knew there were unwanted rescue dogs that could be great companion and service animals for returning wounded warriors.
Like CEO Frank Blake, she realized the pairing of the dogs and Vets was a “no-brainer.” She has since thrown everything in her life into the project, and through Stiggy’s she’s been able to train, house, and provide these dogs completely free of charge to Veterans. As we talked, I could sense a lump forming in her throat (and mine) when she described how completely overwhelmed she was by the hard work of the volunteers and what it would have meant to her nephew. I learned the facility was her husband’s long time family home. When I looked at him, he beamed with pride over his wife’s accomplishments and dedication, and I sensed he was truly honored to have the chance to participate in her dream.
The day continued that way, and I interviewed volunteers and corporate executives and nonprofiteers seamlessly. There didn’t seem to be rank or privilege amongst anyone there, and it was the kind of day where you couldn’t help but smile and strike up a conversation.
That’s exactly what I did when I saw a young man standing by himself, stoking a fire of crackling branches collected by some volunteers. He poked at them and leaned against his rake. It turned out that this was Jamie, one of the Veterans that Stiggy’s Dogs had helped after he discovered difficulties that stemmed from a previously undiagnosed case of PTSD. I met other Vets and their families, too: Eric and Mike and Mollie. Their stories deserve more room than I can possibly fit into this post, but all of them took time to share some of their very personal struggles with me, and I intend to honor their efforts with a separate story worthy of their message.
I left Howell, Michigan with a better understanding of the sacrifices our servicemembers make when they return home with invisible injuries, some of which take considerable time to manifest. I got back on the plane to head home and thought about the hundreds of other events Home Depot will sponsor, and the hundreds of volunteers that will appear at each one. Despite my heavy heart I felt encouraged that through events like these thousands of Veterans will be personally helped. I thought about how the gap between the military understanding and civilian experience might just be filled in by a private corporation whose leaders and employees have chosen to make it their priority.
The folks at Home Depot are sending me a box of energy-saving goodies to give away, and they’re working on an event here in my hometown of Vancouver, Washington where I can pitch in to help a local Veteran. I also got a response directly from the company spokesperson on what’s happening with the 10% military discount, and you’re going to like it! I’ll update you on that information next week.In the meantime, take a look at the Milspouse Announcements Page where you can meet the entire list of Do-It-Yourself, Home Decor, and Design bloggers that are covering this year’s Celebration of Service. I had a chance to meet these writers in person, and I can guarantee you they share my love for this cause – and they want to meet you, too.
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