John Gonsalves | Survival Guide: Perspectives from the field

John Gonsalves, founder, Homes for Our Troops

John Gonsalves has bought a house in Woodbridge, Va., and is adapting it for Staff Sgt. Eugene Simpson.

Courtesy photo

It was a television news report about an American soldier who had his legs blown off that got to John Gonsalves and made him want to take action to help severely wounded soldiers.

At first, the construction contractor wanted to donate a couple weeks of his time to an organization that remodeled and built homes for disabled veterans.

When he couldn't find such a group, he quit his job and started his own.

In March 2004, Gonsalves founded Homes for Our Troops (www.homesforourtroops.org) to create free accessible homes for disabled veterans. The nonprofit, nonpartisan group in Taunton, Mass., raises money and solicits donations of building materials and professional labor to redesign homes or build new ones to accommodate veterans with severe disabilities. Five employees, including Gonsalves as president, run the organization on a $2 million annual budget. So far, they have completed seven projects and are working on a dozen others.

Gonsalves will be in Washington Sept. 9 for a black-tie fundraiser that the American Council for Technology and Industry Advisory Council will hold for his group at Washington Union Station.

Through ticket sales, sponsorships and auctioned items, ACT/IAC expects to raise between $100,000 and $120,000. Gonsalves recently talked with staff writer Roseanne Gerin about Homes for Our Troops.

WT: How is it that you quit your job to start Homes for Our Troops?

Gonsalves: After Sept. 11, there was just something inside of me that somehow wanted to be involved. But then I was watching the news, and they were interviewing some soldiers who had come back from Iraq and had been in a convoy that was attacked. They were talking about their buddy who was driving a Humvee and got hit with a rocket-propelled grenade. When they were able to get him out of the Humvee, they realized he had lost both legs. ? Originally, I was just looking to donate a couple of weeks of time, and then I found out that no organization had ever been set up to [help make these veterans' homes handicapped accessible]. That's really what got it started.

WT: You provide construction funds; do you personally work on the houses?

Gonsalves: We don't just give them the funding; we're part of the whole process: designs and plans and the purchasing of land and materials. We're sort of a nonprofit general contractor. I only did [construction work] on the first one, which was in Massachusetts. I general-contracted that one, but now I don't actually put on a tool belt any more. We work with a lot of volunteers, but we have two people who are hands-on. They don't travel to these jobs and stay start-to-finish but they're in and out. We try to make it a community effort and work with locals and get as much materials and labor donated as we can to keep the costs down.

WT: What do the special redesigns and new homes cost?

Gonsalves: For redesigning a home, it depends on what it needs, but probably about $100,000. For a new home, it depends mainly on location. A lot of it's the land cost, but they range from $100,00 to $300,000.

WT: What was the most complicated accommodations you've had to build?

Gonsalves: Probably a house that we're doing in Springhill, La. This veteran was shot in the neck by a sniper, and he's a quadriplegic. He has to have a ventilator to stay alive. We had to put a lot into this house because he was so severely wounded. There have to be lifts for his wife to get him in and out of bed. Everything has to be bigger and wider. I think his wheelchair is about 800 pounds. We have to make sure there's a back-up generator system. We put in Simonton StormBreaker windows and built the bedroom so it was a saferoom because we do have tornadoes in the area.

WT: What's the biggest headache you have in running Homes for Our Troops?

Gonsalves: Raising enough money. That's the bottom line. You just can't do this without raising large sums of money.

WT: What's the one big thing that Homes for Our Troops would like to do that it hasn't done yet?

Gonsalves: We want to be in a position financially so it becomes an outreach program ? where we have to go out and find more vets instead of having to go out and find more money for the vets we have.

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