By LYDIA BERGLAR
Several members of the Dade County community serve disabled veterans through a national non-profit called A Soldier’s Journey Home.
Jake Case (DCHS Class of 2002) serves on the board while Carly Stephens (DCHS Class of 2015) works with the non-profit during their annual building projects. Other Dade County folks who have served include Cara Case (Jake’s wife and Carly’s sister), Jake’s father, and Adam Cannon.
A Soldier’s Journey Home builds homes for veterans who have been injured in the line of duty. The mission on the website reads, “With volunteers from all over the country, we galvanize the local community and build a specially-adapted, mortgage-free home for a veteran with disabilities to give back for the sacrifices they have made on our behalf and on behalf of our nation.”
The impetus for the project began with firemen who witnessed the destruction of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Case said, “Firemen in New York wanted to give back, and a few other charity organizations wanted to help give back.” These firemen began rebuilding areas that were hit by disasters.
After completing a variety of projects, this original group built the first home for a veteran in Ringgold, Ga. in 2015. That’s when Case, who works for the Chattanooga Fire Department, got involved. He said, “They called our firehall and needed help with that build.”
Eventually, enough folks wanted to focus on the homes for veterans portion that they were able to officially begin A Soldier’s Journey Home. Today, the group is approximately 80% firefighters, many of whom are also veterans. Case noted, “Our core group is made up of about 75 people from 14 different states.”
Each year, usually in May or June, the volunteers work together for 12 days to complete the construction. Extensive planning occurs before the build begins, taking about a year to plan each home.
Case said, “We handle permits, inspections, drawings, and materials ahead of time before two weeks of organized chaos. We have a logistics side, a construction side, and a food side because we bring in a small city of volunteers. We try to find hotels with discounted rates.” Volunteers pay for their own travel, while the non-profit raises funds to cover lodging and meals during the construction.
The non-profit’s funding comes primarily from grants and private sponsors, and they have held donation drives in the past. Case noted that the three most recent homes have been in partnership with the charitable Tunnel to Towers Foundation. “We’re a complete non-profit,” Case said. “No one makes a dime.”
Stephens learned about the volunteer opportunity from Case. She recalled, “I heard about it from Jake. I really liked the idea of helping people, and this was an easy way to do that.”
While completing the Physical Therapist Assistant program at Chattanooga State Community College, Stephens also works at CHI Memorial in Chattanooga as a physical therapy technician. She previously earned her bachelor’s in exercise science from the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga.
The non-profit reviews a pool of applicants before selecting a veteran. Case explained, “If they already own land, that helps, but we’ve also purchased land for the houses. It depends on each veteran’s situation.”
The house is designed with specific elements, such as wide doorways/hallways, automatic doors, smart home technology, wheelchair accessible showers, or adjustable countertop heights, depending on the needs of each veteran. The size of the home also depends on the number of children. Case noted that they’ve built one home for a family of ten.
Stephens said, “My schooling and work helps me recognize the specific elements for each veteran. They do a lot of pre-planning to make it specific to the person. Our Ohio build and Maine build were for double amputees. I got to see the cool adaptations they made for each house.”
Stephens and Case both noted how enjoyable the construction work is. Case said, “It’s like a huge network of friends and a big reunion with a tool belt.”
Stephens added, “My favorite thing is being with everyone and knowing that it’s not about you; it’s about the person getting the home. The blood, sweat, and tears is all worth it. It’s a big family. Every year we gain new people, and we have a good time together.”
In addition to his work as a fireman, Case runs a small construction business which helped prepare him for his work with A Soldier’s Journey Home, but he noted that a variety of volunteers are needed. “We need people just to help pick up scrap materials. Not everybody needs to be highly skilled. We’ve actually had people who’ve learned skills by volunteering and then gone into construction.”
The rising cost for building materials impacts the non-profit. Case noted that while they generally have enough volunteers, funding is a big need. “We’re great at getting people, and we can usually find some material donations, but we’re not as great at raising money.”
The 2023 build will be in Boone, N.C., and if interested in volunteering or donating, visit www.asoldiersjourneyhome.org.