By Frosti Adams, Oregon-Columbia Chapter Workforce & Professional Development Manager
When I started working at AGC two years ago, one of my goals was to connect veterans with the construction industry. I didn’t know how exactly that was going to happen, but as the daughter and mother of veterans, I was passionate about helping veterans. My first goal was to find a charity that focused on veteran or active duty families where we could sponsor some holiday cheer. Superficial, but it was a place to start. Then I heard about Veterans Legacy Oregon, and their Camp Alma Wellness Center, and a bigger project materialized. Much bigger.
Camp Alma is a former Lane County corrections facility in the coast range, about 45 minutes west of Eugene. The camp sits on 117 acres of land in a peaceful valley. What a surprising hidden gem after several miles of winding, narrow roads! I arrived with a small group from various organizations on a foggy, cold November day, just after Veterans Day. My first impression was “this place needs a lot of repair work done,” and closer inspection further confirmed that. There were no residents at that time because so much work needed to be done, and I was inspired that this was a place where AGC members could give back in a bigger way than sponsoring a family for a meal and some holiday gifts.
Nationally, an average of 20 veterans commit suicide every day for a variety of reasons. Oregon’s rate is one of the highest in the nation, and Lane County has the highest percentage of homeless veterans in Oregon. Camp Alma’s mission is “to provide a safe, secure place in a rural setting for local veterans encountering homelessness, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse disorders, to live and work as they begin the journey back to successfully reintegrate into the community.” Dan Buckwald, an Air Force vet and founder of Veterans Legacy Oregon, was the officer in charge when Camp Alma was a corrections facility. He is a visionary, and is uniquely suited to manage the camp with his corrections background enabling him to maintain order, yet he is also empathetic to the residents and aids in their personal growth and healing.
Fast forward nine months—I met Mark Harrington, from Chambers Construction in Eugene, to talk about the skills program that he designed for Springfield High School’s Construction Club. As he was sharing the scope and sequence of units in his Construction Club program, I immediately saw the potential for this training to be incorporated at Camp Alma. Mark, a Navy vet and recruiter for Chambers, and I met at Camp Alma for a tour, and he immediately saw the physical needs of the camp. They had a massive to-do list that included everything from structural work to painting, and they had a good group of volunteers with very limited construction experience. Projects were getting done based on donations and volunteer capabilities. For example, drywall, paint, and new can lights had been installed in the revamped dorm area, but the roof leaked. The camp needed a project manager, and Mark became the de-facto PM. He immediately saw the potential as a living lab for his construction club, and the students could learn construction skills, while at the same time give back to a needy community.
Mark went back to Chambers and they immediately got on board with this project. In the winter of 2019, rather than lay off apprentices, Chambers donated the time and materials for four apprentices, who along with Mark, began working on the camp’s long list of projects. Over the course of two and a half weeks, the crew completed projects including re-siding the dormitory, installing a drop ceiling in the kitchen and re-siding the cooler area, did a major overhaul of the shower area, including installing privacy partitions and repairing rot, doing window trims and caulking in the dormitory, and installing new bath fans. The apprentices will return soon with two instructors to continue completing projects on the list, including building a 40’x40’ covered storage area for two firetrucks donated for wildfire suppression.
Other partners also made donations of time and materials. Local unions roofed the dormitory building with materials donated by Malarkey Roofing Products, large windows donated by Pacific Lumber replaced the “jailhouse” windows in the dorm, and Travelers donated funds for materials that led to a revamped greenhouse. A workday occurred late last fall where volunteers cleaned up junk and pulled weeds, and four loads of scrap metal were hauled out.
The completed repair work enabled the camp to get a residency permit and they now have their first group of residents. Joe, a current resident, was homeless and sick, and nearly died. He had a core body temperature of 83 degrees, cardiac problems, and a bleeding ulcer. The camp gave him a place to begin the process of getting mentally and physically well. He has had help applying for benefits, a birth certificate, and is showing leadership at the camp. With the help of donated computers from AGC, he will be able to get his food handlers permit and OSHA10 training while he recuperates. This is the type of success story that Dan and the volunteers hope repeats exponentially. Camp Alma is not a “rehab program.” It is a place for veterans to heal by re-establishing community, social skills, and self-worth. They heal themselves while working in the garden, doing projects, building projects that will make the camp be self-sufficient, and learning new skills. They fish in the Siuslaw River, which borders the camp, and they enjoy the peace and quiet of the setting. They recently found a turtle by the river and named him Frank.
Chambers Construction and Mark Harrington have been champions for Camp Alma. They are looking forward to future training opportunities with Veterans Legacy to benefit the residents and build a strong base of future carpenters, both residents and local students. They want to “serve the needs of Veterans Legacy, just as the veterans there have served us, [and] all involved will be winners.” Chambers and AGC invite anybody who has the desire to help Camp Alma to join us.
If you would like to volunteer at Camp Alma, we have an AGC Work Weekend and Campout planned for July 18 and 19. Contact Frosti Adams at AGC if you would like to sign up for the weekend or would like to help in any other way.