Tag Archives: Jewett City

Vets’ Housing Opens in Jewett City: First of its Kind in U.S.

Story and photo by Sandy MacKay
The new American Legion Veterans Housing apartment complex in Jewett City, first of its kind in US has 18 fully equipped apartments, two of which are fully handicapped accessible, everything state of the art.
The main entrance has a welcoming glass lobby with the American Legion logo emblazoned above the door.

Today, a large red, white, and blue ribbon is stretched between two gleaming white pillars, as if to say that this day really is a long-overdue gift to those who sacrificed for our country.

At the opening on July 11, the Patriot Guard Riders assemble in a line along the sidewalk holding their flags.

Under a tent in the parking lot I interview William Czmyr, the initiator who had been the LaFlamme-Kusek American Legion Post 15 Commander back in 2002. His major task back then was to solve the problem of an ailing building that the Jewett City Post  could not afford to fix on its own, let alone maintain.
Czmyr recalls the Post’s discussions of the needs of many veterans…and a possible use for their building.

He said that it all came down to the general question, “Why not house homeless vets here? We have the military creed of leaving no comrade behind—and what are we doing for our homeless veterans?”
Czmyr continues, “So I took these ideas to five or six contractors who came to look at the building, but none ever got back to me. I kept pressing on until I ran into Ed Burke, who is currently the Veteran Affairs Representative for Congressman Joe Courtney. Ed then took the Post’s vision to Dr. Laurie Harkness of the Veterans Affairs Healthcare System.

“The project started to move forward. Post 15 had to create a nonprofit entity, called the TALVHI Project, and form a board.”  TALVHI, which stands for The American Legion Veterans Housing Inc., would be the fundraising and planning entity to turn the building into a facility worthy of our vets.

“With state cutbacks threatening to stop the project,” Czmyr remembers, “the Post held a protest, picketing in front of the building in the rain. The news quoted us as saying, ‘the homeless vets are out there in this rain, we can not stop!’”

My interview with Czmyr ends as the ceremony starts. A large crowd fills the tent and Project Partners are in position in preparation for the ceremonial ribbon-cutting by Czmyr and remarks by officials.

Mark Czmyr, Master of Ceremonies, Post  15 Commander, and William’s son, officiated and introduced his father, now TALVHI President, to a standing ovation. Then came Wayne Morgan, Department Senior Vice-Commander, Connecticut American Legion; Dr. Laurie Harkness, VA Connecticut Healthcare System; Eric Chatman, Executive Director, Connecticut Housing Finance Authority; Richard Blumenthal, U.S. Senator, Connecticut; Joe Courtney, U.S. Congressman, Connecticut’s Second District; and Admiral Richard P. Breckenridge, U.S. Navy, Commander, Submarine
Group Two.

Ten years of work and the resulting thanks resound as the speakers are heard. Each thanks William Czmyr for his steadfast work. Joe Courtney also thanks his own Veteran Affairs Rep, Ed Burke, for his ability to keep the project on course. The congressman then introduces the keynote speaker, Admiral Richard P. Breckenridge.

The admiral first mentions that, he works closely with Congress and in particular, Joe Courtney, and that they had both been present at the commissioning of the USS Mississippi (SSN-782) in Pascagoula, Mississippi, and that he felt that Joe gave a very inspirational speech at that event.

Courtney, observing that he was a Yankee in the deep South, and was in “enemy territory” as a Northerner, said that there is a trend in the country that has become very divisive—such as in Red States, Blue States, North, South, and such.

But, he said, these times also press us to come together in a cause that is worth fighting for, as he has seen in the Borough of Jewett City.

As I listened, his words found the depths of my own experience. At the end of the applause I was barely able to focus on the followup speaker, Avery Tillinghast of the Home At Last Campaign Council, with his presentation of residual follow-up funds totaling $450,000.

As the ceremony ended, I was standing in front of the admiral: I told him with half a tear in my eye what his words meant to me as a veteran who was once homeless, that there could be no better way to tell the story of this magnificent 10-year-quest by Bill Czmyr and his allies.

You may read the admiral’s speech at http://www.theresident.com/2012/07/04/admiral-breckenridge-welcomes-veterans-to-a-new-home

Admiral Breckenridge Welcomes Veterans to a New Home

The Resident is proud to present the full transcript of Admiral Richard P. Breckenridge’s speech at the ribbon cutting ceremony of the American Legion Veterans Housing apartment in Jewett City.

 

Admiral Richard P. Breckenridge speaks at the ribbon cutting ceremony.

Late last summer, a remarkable thing was happening in Jewett City.

If you were transported in time to the corner of Main Street and Slater Avenue, on the morning of August 29th, nothing out of the ordinary would have caught your attention. The streets hummed quietly with morning traffic, and people walked in and out of the open doors of local businesses.  Like on any other day, you could get a cup of coffee, a newspaper, a tank of gasoline, or a piece of pie. Or you could just roll into town and look out the windows while you idled at the traffic light, convince yourself there was nothing extraordinary happening here, and move on.

But that was the amazing part.  The day before, hurricane Irene barreled through New England, uprooting trees and homes and lives.  The sixth-most damaging storm in US history did not spare this area from its fury. There was no lucky break for this town, and the same awful storm that blazed a path of destruction and misery up the coast, leaving hundreds dead, thousands homeless, and hundreds of thousands in the dark for weeks ripped through the streets of Jewett City…..

And 24 hours later…, the lights were on, and Jewett City was an oasis in the desert of Irene’s aftermath. For weeks after, the glow in the sky was the lights of Jewett City, where you could fill your gas tank, do your banking, visit a church or stock up at a store. The lights stayed on, and for the storm-battered area refugees, Jewett City was the safe port…the sheltered place that seemed, for a little while, like everybody’s home town.

And It wasn’t by luck, or by accident.  It was by commitment, planning, and hard work for in Jewett city, the local utility company is owned and operated by the town, serving its 2500 customers with a dedicated staff of…  three people.   And being small and nimble had many advantages when it came time to get ready for the hurricane, and to quickly recover afterwards. But more fundamentally, the hard decisions, years of planning, and generosity of spirit and dedicated service is what made the city shine in the darkness like a lighthouse on a dark and unfamiliar shore.

Today, the hard winds of another storm are reaching our coast again, but this is not a storm of nature’s making.

Throughout our recent history, the Nation’s best have answered the call to serve.  From the beaches of Normandy to the frozen banks of Chosin Reservoir, from the steaming Mekong Delta to the dusty streets of Fallujah.  In every generation, when our country sounded the horn to muster the troops, they answered with selfless sacrifice and unwavering purpose. They took to the seas and skies and distant lands, and prevailed as uniformed ambassadors of American resolve. They fought like lions, and were as feared in combat as they were respected in peace. There was no greater friend than an American service member…and no more dreadful enemy.

The reasons why so many fought so hard are as varied as the men and women themselves.  Some for patriotism, and others for honor. Some for love of their country, and others for their families. But I think it is fair to say that universally, everybody fought for their home. That when they fought, it was for the streets they lived on, the fields and forests and valleys and shores and towns that they loved.  And we honor them today with the rare title of Veteran; a proud name that only one in 12 Americans bears.

Many can’t come home. They rest where they fell, in France and Tunisia, Belgium and Italy, in the ocean depths, in the jungles of Vietnam and the forests of Korea.  And we honor them with quiet places and rows of stone, with names carved on black marble and battles etched on gleaming bronze, and flags flapping in the wind at half-mast.

But many did come home.  They stand in your communities; leaders and mentors and citizens. They sit at your tables, coach your children, and lead your churches, schools and businesses. And we honor them with parades and ceremonies, with yellow ribbons and simple thank-yous.

But the sad truth is that some of our brothers and sisters have not found their way fully home.  Some never had one, before they answered the Call. Others lost what they had while fighting far away. Many carry their unending war inside their head, and find that while home may still be there, they can’t hear it or see it through the battle that rages in their minds.

Still others find no job, and no hope, and therefore no home to take them in.  How do we honor them.  how do we honor these very special fellow americans?

Tonight, 67,000 proud Veterans, one in every four homeless people, sleep on America’s streets.  By the end of this year, twice that many Veterans will have been homeless for part of the year. Half are Vietnam Veterans, compounding the shame of the country’s bitter division during that conflict. A growing portion of homeless Veterans are from our most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, with women representing 5% of the rapidly rising total.

Tonight, 365 more Veterans go on the streets.  The storm is here, and it’s real.

But ten years ago, the people here in jewett city began an amazing journey to get ready for it.  An off-hand answer to the question of what to do with the empty rooms at the American Legion literally transformed the facility, energized the community, and drew a grass-roots passion from many organizations and donors to blossom into a first-ever innovative approach to tackling homelessness among Veterans.  The people and organizations honored here today did not “address” the issue. They did not study it in committee. They did not write point papers or editorials, or produce multi-colored presentations.  Instead, they declared War.

 

The citizens of Jewett City drew a line in the sand, and declared that the scourge of homelessness among Veterans may rage elsewhere, unchecked and unanswered, but not here. Not in their streets, not on their watch.

Bill Czmyr and his allies, like any Council of Generals, built a patient strategy for the long battle. It must have seemed, in the early days, as if there would never be a way to sustain the enthusiasm, get the details right, find the money, and overcome the thousands of obstacles that go along with a major campaign.  It must have seemed like there would be dark days of phone calls unreturned, emails unanswered. It must have seemed like the battles would never be won, and the war would never end.

But the Call went out, and the people answered. With grants and funding directly supported by Congressman Courtney, with loans and permits, with shovels and sweat, the tide of battle turned.  After all, this was Total War, where every element of the community was energized.  The American Legion donated space and property. State and Federal government representatives located funding and programs to assist.  A local hotel donated furniture. In a true “Joint Operation”, when one hotel group in Waterford donated oversized curtains, local Women’s Groups from Danielson and Plainfield  hand-tailored them to fit the rooms.

It was not done for glory, or money or fame. It was done for the most powerful motives of compassion, and a sincere desire to render well-deserved honor, and a sense of quiet resolve but utter commitment to address a moral outrage.  I was deeply inspired by simple remarks made by your own Burgess Geer in a newspaper interview talking about restoring the war memorial plaques in Fanning Park. He said, “The bronze is going to shine the way bronze should shine.”  That has a deeper meaning when we talk about Veterans. A metal that is heated white-hot and forged for strength, that was made to last, that served its purpose with enduring commitment does not deserve to be cast aside or forgotten. It should shine the way it was meant to shine.  President John Kennedy told us that a nation reveals itself not only by the men and women it produces but also by the men and women it honors and remembers. If that is so, then the men and women who fought for this day are cut from the same cloth of honor and dedication and sacrifice as those they choose to serve.

 

Ten years later, the glow in the sky of the dark night comes from the newest jewel of Jewett City, the American Legion Veteran’s Housing Initiative. It guides our storm-tossed brothers and sisters to safe shores. It says to them, “Here, we give honor to ALL veterans, of all wars and all times. Here, the words Homeless and Veteran are not spoken in the same sentence. Here, we who live our lives at home Free and Safe because of the sacrifices of others, we reach out our hands and our hearts to those who have lost their way. Here, in Jewett City, the lights are on and the doors are open, and for a little while or forever, we Welcome you Home.”

 

 

Alphonse Basilicato Day

story & photo
by Maren Schober

On this sunny day in June, about 50 people gather in the Town Hall of Griswold in Jewett City to honor a very special and loved man, Alphonse Basilicato. About half of those are members of Al’s family coming from all around. The other people are town officials, store keepers in Jewett City and residents. Why all this hubbub? Who is Al anyway?

“Every single day in Jewett City, Al Basilicato pushes his cart through our streets using his broom and shovel to pick up any debris he finds. No one ever asks Al to do this. He just does it. Ususally three times a day he is out there, and because of him, our streets never looked so clean! He doesn’t expect to get a dime for his work. Al has been doing this for over ten years now,” explains Alan Greer, Burgess, Town of Griswold, “Today we take the time to honor him and thank him in a special way. We should have done this a long time ago.”

During the ceremony that takes place in the Town Hall, First Selectman Philip Anthony, Town of Griswold, Representative Steven Mikautel, 45th District, and Alan make short speeches and present Al with framed certificates of honor, gift certificates to stores in town and a safety vest to wear on the street.

Steven reads his presentation aloud, “In recognition of the selflessness, commitment and pride you show in helping to make this city a better place, we hearby proclaim June 12th to be hereafter known as Alphonse Basilicato Day.”

Al is also given another very special gift. He is presented with a new push cart inscribed with “Big Al” on the side, garbage can, work gloves and long handled street broom.

Everyone in the room is shaking hands with Al and giving him hugs. “I just want to make people happy,” Al beams. “That is all I want to do.”

Al’s mother, Adrian Lees, drove all the way from her home in Vermont with her husband. Adrian is so proud of her son. With tears of happiness in her eyes, she tells me, “He just wants to make people smile. That’s all he wants.”

Amazing as Al’s story is, there is more. Back in the 1980’s when Al was 19-years-old and visiting his father in Florida, he was walking along a highway with a friend. Both of them were struck by a drunk driver. His friend died and Al was left with traumatic brain injury. Al was in a coma following the accident, and his doctors did not think he would ever walk or talk again.

Anyone with questions on how they can donate and support Al Basilicato’s effort can call Alan Geer at 860. 334.5572.