Central Illinois Veterans Commission and Tiny Home Project rapidly gaining momentum

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[April 29, 2021] 

Monday evening, while guests stood in line to greet Illinois Senator Sally Turner in her new office in Lincoln, they also had the opportunity to sign a two-by-four for an upcoming tiny home for a veteran, and visit the new offices of the Central Illinois Veterans Commission.

The office for the CIVC is located across the hall from Turner’s office in the Farm Bureau Building, 120 S. McLean Street, Lincoln. Currently there are no office hours as volunteers Joe Schaler and Marsha Fernades are in an out constantly working on the many projects required in order to accomplish the goal of building small dwellings for homeless veterans.

In the office Monday evening, Schaler and Fernades were both spoke with guests about the CIVC and the 2 X 4s for Hope project.

Schaler talked about the formation of the CIVC, the board structure, and the enormous outpouring of generosity the CIVC has seen since, and even before, the ground breaking ceremony for the first tiny home on April 24th.

While the CIVC has been in the spotlight quite a bit in the last few weeks, the organization has actually been working on the home building projects for more than two years.

Schaler explained that the formation of the CIVC came about when there was a push to obtain property on the old Lincoln Developmental Center campus to build a veteran community that would offer housing as well as other needed services for veterans in central Illinois.

With the LDC property belonging to the state of Illinois, Schaler said that discussions with the state had included the need to form a 501c3 non-profit organization that would be able to accept the property from the state. He noted that the state officials he was dealing with had said that they could not turn the property over to the city of Lincoln as was the original thought, nor could they just turn it over to an unofficial group of people. Thus Schaler was advised to form a 501c3, establish a board and move forward from there.

The organization was formed and worked continued toward the end goal of acquiring the LDC property. Then, the state announced that the LDC property would be utilized for a youth detention center, and the hope of getting it for veterans was lost.

Schaler said the board knew that if they were going to accomplish their goal, they would have to shift gears and look for other options.

It was then that 2 X 4s for Hope came into play. Schaler said that a trip to Quincy to the veteran’s home to retrieve some wheelchairs that needed repair brought the opportunity to meet with Mark and Chris Lawrence of 2 X 4s for Hope. The Lawrences explained their special tiny home building project and showed off the homes that they had built in the Quincy area. That started the ball rolling and the CIVC Board was ready to take the next steps.

They would need property. With no money, not only would they need property, they would need property donated to the cause. When Haji Patel offered his vacant lot at the corner of College and Sixth streets, then the board had something tangible they could work with and they were able to envision the end goal on the horizon.

Schaler said that originally, the CIVC had gone to the city to seek a zoning allowance to build four tiny homes on the lot. Then they changed their plan slightly and decided that the lot would be better suited for three homes. He said this would give each home a little more green space which would be good for the veterans and also add to the curb appeal on that lot.

With the property acquired, the next step was going to be to raise money for the building projects. The two-by-four signing events were a great way to do so. The two-by-fours have been taken to schools in Lincoln and will also be taken to other communities in the near future. In addition, the signing event held on Saturday in the parking lot of RP Lumber in Lincoln brought in a lot of people. Though making a donation was not required in order to sign a board, many who stopped in Saturday did stick a few dollars in the collection bucket, and those dollars are adding up.

On Monday evening Schaler noted that the board has calculated that when they get done with all the schools, they will have collected more than 2,000 signatures, plus the signatures from community members. Many of the signatures have been accompanied by personal messages from the signer. Schaler said that the outpouring of support shown on the lumber is amazing.

Though the two-by-fours are a vital part of the build, Schaler said that the outpouring of support and love on those pieces was just the beginning of a movement that is now snowballing almost to the point of being overwhelming.

The groundbreaking Saturday was televised by a few stations in the area. The news stories were televised on Saturday evening. Schaler said the calls started coming in on Saturday evening after those news reports. The first was a 6 p.m. Saturday evening when a business owner from Springfield called Schaler and said he wanted to help. The gentleman owns a dry walling business and wants to give his services to the build. Another call came from Bloomington when a gentleman said he had a crew of builders that he would make available to the tiny home project.

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The third call came from a construction company in Decatur. Schaler said the owner of the company wanted to help with the Lincoln homes, and he wanted to start a project in Decatur with the help of the CIVC.

When the stories were published in local news media at the beginning of the week, the calls kept coming. Schaler said that he has heard from other communities in the county who also want to build homes in their towns, so the list of upcoming projects is also growing rapidly.

Schaler said that the Lincoln Art Institute also reached out and invited the CIVC to bring some two-by-fours to their wine tasting fundraiser on Saturday, and Bob Burger, owner of McQuellen’s Appliance, had reached out and said he wanted to help with appliances for the homes.

Schaler noted, “The outpouring of donations and donations of in kind services is just very humbling. If our veterans don’t know now how much they are loved, they will never know.”

While Schaler and Fernandes are the obvious faces of the CIVC, Schaler said that the CIVC Board is an outstanding group, fully committed to working to help local veterans. Members of that board include Dan Benedict with the Logan County Veteran’s Commission, Rachel Oney with the local Salvation Army, Patti Becker with the United Way of Logan County, Chuck Conzo, Fernades and Schaler.

The Board also includes an ex officio member Bill Thomas representing the Logan County Economic Development Partnership.

While sharing about the board members, Schaler recalled a story about Patti Becker. During a board meeting the group was reviewing the materials list for the building project. He said that the list included a large number of electrical fixtures and materials. Becker, who is retired from Eaton, took that electrical list, and within 15 minutes after the end of the meeting she came back to Schaler and said the electrical would be handled by Eaton. Eaton has a community grant program and Becker had gotten the tiny home project on their list of grant recipients with just a phone call.

And, Schaler said even the space the CIVC is now using for an office is donated. With the project taking life, there was a need for an official address. It was Jim Drew and the Logan County Farm Bureau who stepped up to fill that need. Schaler said he had been contacted and the general conversation was “you need a space, we have a space; you can have it.”

Schaler said it was all just so overwhelming. The CIVC is working with no money but yet everything is coming together. He said that all the board members including himself and Fernades are volunteering their time, no one is earning a paycheck. All the money they are raising is going into getting new permanent homes for veterans, and that is only happening because the board has a passion for what it is doing, is actively promoting the project, and the community is responding with open hearts and wallets.

The nomination process is now underway for the first tiny home. Schaler said that a nomination form will be on the CIVC website. The form can be filled out and submitted to the CIVC. Nominations for the new homes can come from the veteran him/herself or from a friend or relative who would like to see their veteran get a hand up in the community.

The nominations will be accepted through May, with intentions of making a selection for the first home recipient in early June.

Schaler noted that the project doesn’t really stop with giving a home. There are many wrap around services to assist the veteran to have a better life. The group is working with several partners to provide counselling, education, job training and more.

Agencies the CIVC is working with to provide those services include the Logan County Veterans Assistance Commission, Salvation Army, Logan County Department of Public Health, SIU School of Medicine, Abraham Lincoln Memorial Hospital, Lincoln College and the Lincoln Park District. Schaler said there are also others stepping up to offer wrap around services, and the list will have to be updated as time goes by.


Schaler concluded saying there is no way he can effectively express the gratitude he feels for the outpouring of love he and his board are seeing for local veterans. He noted, “When you get this kind of response, well, that’s when you know, you are doing something right.”

Anyone who wants to be part of this amazing project is encouraged to reach out to the CIVC board members or contact the group via telephone or email. The phone number for the CIVC is 217-828-9366 and the email address is contact@civeteran.org

The CIVC also has a website and a Facebook page.

[Nila Smith]

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