Every one of us has faced situations where you see someone you don’t know in need and you have to make the decision whether to get involved.
Felicia Huesman faced just such a moment three years ago and decided she couldn’t just overlook it. The realtor from Alexandria had no idea the path she was starting down would lead to helping thousands of veterans and, most recently, producing one of the more unusual street scenes that Silver Grove has witnessed this year.
Huesman’s instinct to help led to her becoming the founder and president of the Barracks Project, an organization that took shape based out of her own experiences as the wife of a Kentucky National Guard member.
As she recalls, she was serving her husband’s unit as the Family Readiness Group leader, which helps keep Army and Navy spouses connected during deployment. What Huesman was discovering through her training, though, was that too many soldiers were faltering during their transition out of the military.
The home in Silver Grove under renovation.Veteran support was out there, but for the most part it didn’t kick in until their civilian lives had completely collapsed into issues like homelessness and addictions.
Huesman decided she wanted to do whatever she could to step into the breech for those on the brink.
“Everyone told me I was crazy at the time,” she says. “People were telling me that I wouldn't make a difference. I said, ‘Listen, if I can help one veteran, I will be happy. That would be amazing.’ And I will be satisfied at that point.”
Her instinct that there was a gap that needed addressing proved correct. The Barracks Project has grown exponentially year upon year, touching the lives of at least several thousand veterans, gaining a following of volunteers that numbers in the hundreds and now with operations in California, to go with a new headquarters that has opened in a renovated house in Covington, which doubles as an apartment for temporary living for veterans.
Many of those they have helped are in Northern Kentucky, but the project is open to helping with veteran requests from anywhere.
“I send service members to Felicia probably once a week on average,” says Robin Pruitt, a Family Assistance Specialist for the Kentucky National Guard who focuses on 15 counties in Northern Kentucky, where she estimates there are 1,200 National Guard members.
“There’s not a lot of information that is given about getting out, or what is out there (to help) once you are out,” Pruitt adds.” If you are a guardsman and you haven’t deployed or been active duty for at least 181 days, you are not by law considered a veteran and don’t qualify for veterans’ assistance programs. But for Felicia and her group, as long as you have an honorable discharge and you’ve worn the boots, they’re going to try to help you.”
The Barracks Project tries to be flexible in how it helps veterans, because many times they find that government agencies such as the Veterans Administration are limited by regulations in whom they can help.
“I started with this because I was hearing different horror stories of our soldiers coming back and just the lack of resources available for those who were fulfilling their contract,” Huesman says. “There was nothing to be found when you’ve served your time and are ready to go back to civilian life. “
The Barracks Project offers a spectrum of services, including emergency financial assistance, manpower for service projects, career assistance, hygiene and food items, care packages to deployed soldiers and veteran outreach.
For veterans who struggle to readjust, homelessness is one of the scariest risks. The Barracks Project can help if staying in a home comes down to finding money for an overdue mortgage payment or a utility bill.
Huesman says she was working this week on a typical case with a veteran at risk at the breaking point where he was about to become homeless, but wasn’t to that point yet. “He’s in that gray area where none of the programs can help him, because he isn’t homeless yet. So should we just let him slip into full-blown homelessness? No, of course not, but to get help you either have to be full-out functional or full-out homeless,” she says.
Adds the Kentucky National Guard’s Pruitt: “There's not very much out there to help veterans not become homeless. If I send a service member to somebody like a community support agency, they will often not help financially until there's a disconnect notice or an eviction notice. A lot of times, that’s too late. We needed that in-between resource, which is what Felicia does, and it is just a godsend.”
That flexibility in being able to help and problem-solve is at the center of the growth the Barracks Project has seen. Even as an organization that is run only by volunteers and where 100 percent of money brought in goes directly to programming, they have reached landmarks in recent months that have blown away Huesman's initial modest expectations.
Last year, a Navy veteran who owned a home in Covington contacted the group. What Huesman initially thought would be a request for help turned out to be the woman offering to donate the house, which became both their first headquarters and the apartment space for temporary housing.
Soon after moving in last fall, another opportunity presented itself in Silver Grove.
Barry Jolly contacted Silver Grove’s city leadership about a house on Mary Ingles Highway that he wished to donate to the city. As the city pondered what to do with the home, the idea surfaced from Timmy Bedel, a dedicated Barracks Project volunteer and son of Silver Grove Mayor Neal Bedel, that it could potentially be a resource for veterans.
Firefighters from Melbourne training inside the Silver Grove home on Saturday.After talks with the city, the house was gifted to the Barracks Project for total renovation. When finished, it will become a home for a deserving veteran and their family with no mortgage, just responsibility for utilities, Huesman says.
That decision was just finalized in April, and already, the project has gained huge momentum through community support. This past Saturday, dozens of firefighters from the Campbell County and Melbourne fire departments turned out to both help and at the same time gain a rare training opportunity.
With fire trucks gathered all along Route 8, the firefighters went in as teams and practiced with their captains all the various techniques for venting and taking down walls and ceiling tiles that they face in actual fires. When the work was done, the Barracks Project had its house project taken down to the studs on the interior, ready to begin the process of making the residence clean and livable.
“They were showing them like, ‘Okay, here's how we would check to see if there's a fire in the wall.’ Some of the walls were plaster, some were drywall. Some of the ceiling tiles had insulation, some had foam, and they were telling them, ’Okay, see, we open this and it’s this material and here's what you want to do.’ They said it was very productive and a very beneficial training for them,” Huesman says.
Now progress on the home is moving ahead rapidly. What Huesman thought could be a year-long effort could finish much sooner than that. Work on the interior can now begin. Donated material is showing up from area businesses familiar with the project. On May 30, dozens of members from St. Elizabeth Healthcare’s finance staff will volunteer at the site as part of a team-building exercise.
When the house is ready and the Barracks Project takes a huge step forward by helping a veteran and their family never to have to worry about housing again, Huesman knows the moment will leave her in awe.
“People do great things, but you don’t always hear about them,” she says. “You hear about the downside to things. When you start helping people, you just realize that everything you do does have a reaction in the world, and you might as well make it a positive one.”