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Volunteers rally to create community space for veterans in Waterloo

Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier - 12/8/2023

Dec. 8—WATERLOO — Dozens of volunteers descended upon an empty University Avenue building Wednesday painting walls, unpacking furniture and cleaning up the space — all dressed in sky blue Lowe's T-shirts.

The former Slumberland, at 4020 University Ave., will soon be Americans for Independent Living's new headquarters after the home improvement store provided $85,000 to the Waterloo nonprofit that assists veterans.

AFIL received the money through the Lowe's Hometowns program, which is investing $100 million to complete 100 community-based projects each year through 2026.

The grant went toward turning part of the one-time furniture store into a community room where veterans can relax, talk with friends and participate in activities such as cooking classes or playing pool.

Volunteers came from AFIL, Lowe's and the Cedar Falls Lions Clubs. Before they started working, AFIL Executive Director Tim Combs gave a brief speech — which he could not get through without tearing up.

Combs founded AFIL in 2015 after wanting to do more for the veteran community. The organization provides transitional housing for homeless veterans at 414 and 420 E. Ninth St. One house holds three men and the other a veteran family of four. For veterans who own or rent their homes, the organization helps those with disabilities to complete home modifications and also provides furniture and furnishings.

"Imagine being homeless and then (being) given an opportunity to get into housing, only to realize that although you have a roof and walls, you still don't have the basic dignity of a bed or a sofa or even some dishes," AFIL's website states.

Since the start of the furniture program, $320,000 of items have been delivered to previously homeless veterans.

Cory Champagne, a U.S. Navy veteran who served from 1977 to 1992, was the first "graduate" of the transitional housing program. He lived in the house in 2017 and secured his own apartment in 2018. During that time, he was hired at Lowe's.

"The whole idea is to give that person a year and really build them up," Champagne said. The intent is to "really try to get them a job, a place to live after a year and basically put them on their feet."

He started in the flooring department and moved onto doors and windows. He is now retired but keeps busy volunteering with the American Legion. Champagne lives off of Social Security and a Veterans Affairs pension.

"I make less money but the satisfaction is two-fold," he said.

Champagne learned about the Lowe's grant and with his personal success with AFIL, he put two and two together and went to the store's manager, Rod Mochal to help him put in an application to help the nonprofit.

"I guess we were kind of expecting three or four thousand dollars," Mochal said. "Lowe's was a little more generous than that."

But the $85,000 for the community room isn't the only money AFIL has received to further its efforts.

The organization was awarded $1 million by the Iowa Economic Development Authority in 2022 to acquire the old Slumberland building and make renovations. The 30,000-square-foot facility will increase space for additional programs and donations. Its current office on Fourth Street is 8,000 square feet.

In 2016, while former President Donald Trump was campaigning ahead of the election, he held a rally at the Waterloo Convention Center. During the event, he presented AFIL with a $100,000 check from his foundation.

"(Trump) got out of the car and, actually, he pulled the check out and he carried it right up and handed it to his guys and they held it and he did the signature right there in front of us," Combs said. "Then we went on stage and he gave it to us in front of the national media that was there that morning."

Champagne said the donation from the future president made him feel like AFIL was a "legitimate organization."

Teresa Tjaden, the director of operations for AFIL, said the organization has a capital campaign for the new space with a goal of $1.75 million. With the money from the state, Lowe's and Trump, the end is in sight.

"I didn't think this would happen for many years," Combs said, choking up. "This opportunity, it's just, it's awesome to see that (money) come through ... for being able to purchase the building and remodel it to make it our complete spot of operation."

The renovations are expected to be finished in May.

One unplanned advantage of the location is that it is within walking distance of the new Veterans Affairs outpatient clinic at the former Hy-Vee, located at 4000 University Ave. The clinic offers primary care, mental health care, physical therapy, audiology, a pharmacist, and a dietician as well as a radiology lab, women's treatment center, telehealth, and other social services. Optometry will be offered in the near future.

Nearly 5,000 veterans in northeast Iowa will soon be steps away from a space providing support and camaraderie. This serendipitous outcome confirms Champagne's way of thinking.

"You don't have to know how to do everything," he said. "You just need to know who the people are to hold it all together."

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(c)2023 Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier (Waterloo, Iowa)

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