By Susan D. Brandenburg
Monday, Nov. 7 was a day of celebration at the Five Star Veterans Center in Jacksonville. A large group of Red Coats (volunteer leaders of THE PLAYERS) wheeled in brand new beribboned washers and dryers and then presented the staff and residents with a check for $10,000, all of this in addition to the $5,000 grant already received from THE PLAYERS Championship this year.
“We are vets helping vets here and we thank THE PLAYERS for helping us,” said Colonel Len Loving, USMC (Ret.), noting that the center is proud to be one of the many organizations benefitting from the generosity of THE PLAYERS, who donated more than $8.5 million this year to local charities.
Demonstrating the positive impact of such donations, Loving introduced Billy Tatakamotonga, one of the 22 veterans currently residing at the Center. Nicknamed “Billy T,” the 32-year-old former Cavalry Scout stepped confidently up to the lectern and shared a dramatic personal story about arriving at the Center on Jan. 8, 2016 in a hopeless state of mind. He had kicked his drug habit, but he was cold, hungry, alone and tired — so tired that he was ready to end his life. Instead, he found a brotherhood of caring veterans who gave him new hope.
“I’ve learned to laugh again,” he said, adding that, thanks to the support of the Center, he now has 854 days of sobriety and a five-year plan for success.
Following a tour of the facility, a former nursing home that has been converted into large, nicely appointed single bedrooms for each resident, the Red Coats (and Blue Coats — leaders in training) enjoyed lunch with staff and residents.
Colonel Len Loving and his wife, Suzie, are aptly named. In 2011, Loving was asked by Allied Veterans of the World to convert the aging nursing home into a place where homeless veterans could regain their dignity and rebuild their lives. This he did, and by 2012, the Veterans Center housed 20 residents. Then, in 2013, Allied Veterans of the World were arrested for running illegal gambling cafes and the Center’s primary financial support was lost. Although not associated with illegal dealings, the Center faced ruin. Determined to continue housing veterans, Col. Loving and his staff took no pay for 10 months and solicited help from generous donors. Today, with its name changed to Five Star Veterans Center and a new, active board of directors, the Center is thriving.
In addition to room and board, the Center provides an array of support services to veterans with the goal of being independent, which includes reintegration into the labor force and reconnection with friends and family.
For Chad Childers, a former Army Ranger who was deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq in 2002 and 2003, it was the Center’s new mental health service that made the difference. Childers went through the Center’s “Passport to Independence” Program in 2012, got a job and moved out — only to face several job losses until, last year, he once again found himself homeless.
“I called Mrs. Loving and the Colonel and they took me in again. The contrast between the Center now and back then was huge. The new mental health component made a world of difference for me.” The mental health program is the result of a two-year $352,000 grant from Delores Barr Weaver through the Community Foundation.
“Offering mental health services to our veterans has been life-changing,” said Col. Loving. “It is as important as food and shelter.”
In addition to receiving great support from THE PLAYERS, The Community Foundation, Home Depot and other generous donors in the community, residents, staff and volunteers of the Five Star Veterans Center also reach out to help others. Visit www.5starveteranscenter.org or call (904) 723-5950 to learn about upcoming opportunities to serve.
Photo courtesy Susan D. Brandenburg
The Red Coats visited the Five Star Veterans Center with a donation from THE PLAYERS.