By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — December 15 dawned grey and chilly, but the excitement generated by military veterans, Deacon Dan Powers, CEO of Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph and several staffers, Mayor Sly James, bankers and City officials was palpable and warming. About 50 people gathered at St. Michael’s Veterans Center on Kansas City’s east side, to celebrate the groundbreaking of Phase II, a mere 18 months after the grand opening of Phase I.
There to applaud were also residents of Seven Oaks and Vineyard neighborhoods, which border St. Michael’s 24-acre campus.
Great ideas sometimes fall on fertile ground. In 2007, Mike Halterman, then CEO of Catholic Charities, was approached by an official of the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs offering to provide seed financing and planning assistance for a pilot housing project for homeless veterans in Kansas City. Although he turned the offer down, as no services were involved, the idea stayed with him.
Kansas City attorney Art Fillmore, Vietnam veteran and founder of Heart of America Stand Down Foundation, a non-profit that annually hosts a three-day event specifically for homeless veterans, had long dreamed of a veterans center comprised of housing, services and dignity. Halterman invited Fillmore to lunch in 2010. Their ideas and dreams coalesced and marched through the next couple of years, growing, expanding and finally in 2014, opening St. Michael’s Veterans Center, apartment homes and wrap around services, medical and mental health coordinated with the VA Hospital nearby, job training and mentoring and, most of all, solid ground under the veterans’ feet, as one veteran said.
Fillmore is now a member of the Board of Directors of St. Michael’s Center.
In the spring of 2014, retired U.S. Army major Eric Verzola, who served 20 years in the military, joined Catholic Charities as Director of Veterans Affairs. He knows and understands the mindset of a veteran.
Within one month of opening, all 59 one-bedroom apartments in the building had been rented. The building has won several awards, including a 2015 Cornerstone Award from the Kansas City Economic Development Corporation. Now, ground has been broken for Phase II, which is expected to open in the summer of 2016.
Phase II will add another 59 one-bedroom apartments, some handicap accessible, with on-site case management, supportive services and a sense of pride for residents. Eventually, Catholic Charities and Yarco Companies, St. Michael’s Center’s property manager, plan for a Phase III to round out the campus, with about 180 one bedroom apartments in the three phases.
The Presentation of Colors was made by VFW Post 10906, Gladstone, under a tent heated by patio heaters. After Dennis Watts, retired Captain, U.S. Air Force and now regional property manager for Yarco, led the assembly in the Pledge of Allegiance, Jonathon Cohn, CEO of Yarco, and Deacon Dan Powers, CEO of Catholic Charities, opened the remarks.
Cohn outlined the timeline, from conception to grand opening of Phase I and now groundbreaking of Phase II.
Deacon Powers said, “The success we have seen here has brought hope to veterans and their families and the second phase of this project will bring even more hope.”
He named several staff members of Catholic Charities, including Verzola, Christian Taylor and Meachel Walker, whose work has allowed veterans to not only find a beautiful place to live but helped them to thrive. That work has caught the attention of the Sargent Major assigned to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of the Veterans Administration and the National Commander of the American Legion. All three have visited St. Michael’s, he said.
Mayor James, a Vietnam veteran of the Marine Corps, is the son of a Marine and the father of a Marine. He commented, “There is no civilian equivalent of serving in the military. When a veteran returns to civilian life, it’s like a bucket of ice cold water being thrown in his face. There needs to be a way of re-integrating veterans into society and improving the lives of veterans returning home. St. Michael’s Veterans Center is fulfilling that need.”
Mayor James also said that Scott Wagner, Mayor pro-tem, has been working on the homeless issue in Kansas City, especially for veterans.
Other guest speakers included Third District Councilman Jermaine Reed and Third District Councilman at large Quinton Lucas. The ceremonial groundbreaking took place under the flag pole. The shovel-wielders were: Lynn Lang, President, 4Sight Construction; Jonathan Cohn, CEO, The Yarco Companies; Curtis Jones, 7 Oaks Neighborhood Association; Johnny Cheatom, Vineyards Neighborhood Association; Deacon Dan Powers, CEO, Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Inc.; Scott Rosemann, Partner, Rosemann and Associates; Jermaine Reed, KCMO Councilman, 3rd District; Art Fillmore, Partner, St. Michael’s Veterans Center Board Member; Sly James, KCMO Mayor; Lynn Craghead, Senior Business Development Associate, US Bank Community Development Corporation and Quinton Lucas, KCMO Councilman, 3rd District At-Large.
U.S. Army veteran Kenneth Brown, who will be 57 Dec. 30, and his wife lived for one complete year at St. Michael’s, before being able to move into larger quarters at another Yarco Property. He said that finding out about St. Michael’s was a godsend.
“I served as a Drill Sargent for 10 years in the Persian Gulf and getting out of the Army and coming home was starting from scratch. As time goes by, it can be a real struggle to go on after you leave the service. I was homeless for five years.”
Kenneth is disabled but he’s all smiles.
“I learned about St. Michael’s on the Catholic Charities website, and jumped at the chance it offered. I prayed, ‘God I need St. Michael’s like I need water!’ I got in at the right time for me. My wife and I lived here a whole year, ideal tenants, no write-ups. I worked on getting myself together, getting my finances together and a couple of months ago, we moved into another apartment where my three grandkids can come visit and spend the night. We wouldn’t be where we are now if I didn’t find St. Michael’s! And I was able to help another vet by moving out, ‘cause he now has our old apartment.”
For more information on St. Michael’s Veteran’s Center, visit www.catholiccharities-kcsj.org.