Pushing through: Veteran group revs up temporary housing fundraiser efforts

Katelyn Waltemyer
Jackson Newspapers
Vaughn Anderson walks through the 800-square-foot house Tuesday morning.

RIPLEY No sirens, no loud noises. Just crickets chirping and bees buzzing — that's all Vaughn Anderson wants veterans looking for a temporary home to hear. 

Operation Jackson County Veterans a nonprofit dedicated to helping veterans in need  is almost done with its first tiny house located off Sycamore Creek Road. 

The nonprofit began leasing the 17-acre lot between 2018 and 2019, Anderson said. 

Anderson, the nonprofit's president, said it was important for the group to find a quiet property outside of town. 

The nonprofit bought 17 acres located off Sycamore Creek Road to eventually build dozens of tiny houses for veterans in need.

"We picked a remote area that gets them out of the way of town, away from people, away from sirens," Anderson said. "That was the whole reason why we placed that house where we did."

How one idea turned into a nonprofit

Stephen Hartley, Anderson's cousin and a veteran, founded the nonprofit in 2016 after a friend and veteran died by suicide. He said he's "determined" not to lose another veteran like that, and that's why Operation Jackson County Veterans is here. 

Between 2013 and 2018 veteran suicide was 1.5 times more common than that of nonveteran adults, according to the 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report.

In the 2020 report, it's noted that the annual veteran suicide rate increased from 6,056 in 2005 to 6,435 in 2018. The report also says that the suicidal ideation rate documented 30 days before publication was "significantly higher" for minority populations. 

Hartley wants all veterans in Jackson County to know they don't have to fight their demons alone. 

"You're not alone," Hartley said. "You've got people that are going to be there for you no matter what."

Hartley served in the Marine Corps from 1989 to 1993. During that time, he served in Operation Desert Storm, Japan and Somalia.

He said it was challenging adjusting back to life in the states, and even though he found his way, he wishes there had been more resources available. 

The group started by helping veterans who were struggling to pay bills. Now, the nonprofit is almost done building its first tiny house for veterans. 

Anderson said the first house is "three quarters" done. His team needs to install gutters, cabinets and rails on the front porch.

Temporary housing, permanent impact

Each house will be able to hold a family of four, Anderson said. Two adults and two children. The second floor, a loft, is for children because the ceiling is too low for adults to stand straight up there. 

Anderson said the goal is to have veterans in the houses for about five weeks while members of Operation Jackson County Veterans help them find jobs and a permanent place to live. 

The group worked on the first tiny house for six weeks, and then the world shut down because of COVID-19. After a year-and-a-half pause on the 800-square-foot house, Anderson, who has 30 years of project management experience, said it's time to get back to work. 

The first two acres of the property will eventually have five 800-square-foot houses, Anderson said, and the house closest to the road will be handicap accessible.

Once these are completed, trees will come down and the rest of the lot will be cleared for more houses. If the group continues to have five houses for every two acres, there will be a swarm of 40-something tiny houses for veterans in Ripley. 

Each house — except for the handicap accessible ones — will be completely identical inside and out from the tan siding and green roof to the wooden walls and staircase. 

Anderson said he made the interior all wood for a reason. 

"It's durable," Anderson said. "That's why we built it the way we did."

Once complete, the houses will have a namesake. Each house will be named after a deceased veteran from Jackson County. Anderson said the first house is named after the person that inspired Hartley to start the nonprofit  Matt Alderman, who fought alongside Anderson and Hartley in Operation Desert Storm.   

Money, money, money 

Anderson said when he first budgeted the project in 2019, he was anticipating the first house to cost $40,000. The group has invested $20,000 in it so far, and Anderson said he has no hope of meeting the $40,000 budget with today's lumber costs.

Since COVID-19 restrictions have eased and 42.3% of Jackson County residents fully vaccinated, Anderson is ready to resume fundraisers. On Thursday, July 22, the group will have its first fundraiser at Maka Mia Pizza in Ripley since the beginning of the pandemic. 

Operation Jackson County Veterans will sell T-shirts and have a 50-50 raffle starting at 6 p.m. Thursday. None of the proceeds from meals will go toward the nonprofit. 

— Katelyn Waltemyer (she/her) is the General Assignment and Enterprise Reporter for Jackson Newspapers in Jackson County, West Virginia. Have a news tip on local government or education? Or a good feature? You can reach Katelyn at kwaltemyer@jacksonnewspapers.com. Follow her on Twitter @Kate_Waltemyer.