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A home built for veterans

Disabled vets can get help at Gresham house
by: Jim Clark The kitchen of the new Gresham Vets Transition Home, above, offers a special 30-inch-hight-eating bar and lots of room for wheelchairs, below.

Veterans returning from combat often bring home more than just a military-issue duffel bag. Many carry seen and unseen scars, making their re-entry to civilian life difficult.

The newly opened Gresham Vets Transition Home in Northwest Gresham is designed to aid that process. Built by veterans, for veterans, the home is a warm nurturing environment for both emotional and physical healing.

'The house is an alternative to the big-box warehouse concept of veteran's care,' said Tom Widden, volunteer and donation chairman for the facility. 'We had the opportunity to rebuild something and make it barrier free and handicapped friendly. It's primarily a place for veterans to live while they're transitioning from one level of independence to another.'

Nestled in an established residential neighborhood, the house was a former rental that had fallen into disrepair and eventually, foreclosure. A potential buyer for the property recognized the costs of bringing the dwelling to livable standards and backed out of the deal, opening the door for the current owner to gift both the land and building for a group home.

Choosing to remain 'in the background,' according to Widden, the owner personally undertook renovation expenses, spurred by her own background as part of a military family.

'None of this would have been possible without her investment,' Widden said. 'And everything in here came from local businesses, who either substantially discounted the supplies or donated them to make this come together.'

A showpiece in craftsmanship and sensitive design, the house boasts seven bedrooms, four bathrooms, a great room, kitchen and guest room. Low-threshold showers and toilets meet Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards, while 36-inch doorways and hardwood flooring make it easier on those in wheelchairs to navigate. A 30-inch-high eating bar in the kitchen is wheelchair accessible and all appliances, like laundry facilities, have frontal access controls and doors. Quarters for a medically certified resident manager are self-contained, including a small kitchenette, and an office will be equipped with a fax machine and copier for resident's use.

'We also have full Wi-Fi access so they will be able to use a laptop or cell phone,' Widden said. 'Communicating with family and others is very important to the transition process, so they can get back on their feet.'

Designed by Milwaukie architect Guy Altman, a friend of Widden's, the entire planning and approval process took only eight days. Widden credits the city of Gresham Building Development Department with fast-tracking the plans, allowing workers to begin gutting the building down to the studs June 27, 2010.

Completed in May, the house is awaiting its first residents, who are being selected. The home is not a skilled care nursing facility, Widden said, but meant to be a transitional environment for those working through emotional, physical or occupational therapy treatments and in need of support.

'We would like to serve those with ambulatory issues, since we've built the house to suit their needs,' he explained. 'But we also recognize that reintegrating veterans back into society is a complicated problem. The fastest growing segment of vets who need this help are the Vietnam vets, because they're approaching their 60s. They may not appear handicapped, but they could be paralyzed by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and unable to cope with day-to-day life. When a person returns from combat, you don't always know right away what their level of independence will be.'

Widden is no stranger to the plight facing numerous veterans. He served in the Coast Guard during Vietnam and has used his skills as a former residential remodeler to oversee renovation of other group homes throughout the Portland area. He also volunteers help veterans regain their independence, often employing them on site during construction projects.

'A lot of them have skills they want to use,' Widden said. 'Being productive, even if they have other issues, is good for their morale and well-being. It's satisfying to see them move onto independence.'

For more information on the Gresham Vets Transition Home, call Widden at 971-570-9986.