February 25, 2020
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Former garden center being converted to farm, housing for homeless veterans

Kathryn Olmstead | BDN
Kathryn Olmstead | BDN
John Deveau, president of Caribou-based United Veterans of Maine, in one of five greenhouses at the former Phil's Florist in Caribou where construction is underway to create a homeless shelter with job training for Aroostook County veterans.

A new Caribou-based nonprofit is on its way to creating a homeless shelter and work-training center for Aroostook County veterans.

United Veterans of Maine, founded in 2015, partnered with WAGM-TV to raise more than $45,000 in one day toward conversion of a 12.5-acre garden center into a place where homeless veterans may not only reside, but also learn skills that will help them be productive members of the community.

“Project 16,” a March 9 fundraising telethon coordinated by the local television station, tapped into the generosity of Aroostook County residents, exceeding all expectations.

“We thought $17,000 would be a good goal,” said UVM president John Deveau, who served twice in Iraq. That goal was reached by 10 a.m.

“WAGM saw a great idea and decided to partner,” Deveau said. “They got the message out. They made the cause known. I can’t thank them enough.”

More than 200 individuals, families and businesses donated during the day, marking the end of a month of promotions that included a challenge to do 16 jumping jacks to support the cause and submit a video for an online competition. Entries included videos of 250 Caribou High School students and children at a local day care center, which can still be viewed at www.wagmtv.com/project16aroostook.

“We even got Rene Clukey to do 16 jumping jacks,” said Vietnam veteran Vaughn Hardaker of the WAGM-TV sportscaster who said he would respond to the challenge if UVM met their goal. Hardaker is commandant of the Meo Bosse detachment of the Marine Corps League in Caribou, another partner in the homeless shelter project. “WAGM was fantastic,” he said. “All the promotion was given absolutely free. That could be worth at least $20,000.”

The drive to fund a homeless shelter for Aroostook County veterans grew from a desire to find housing and services for veterans who do not qualify for admission to other shelters. “Project 16” was named for the veterans not admitted to homeless shelters in 2015.

“Sixteen veterans from Aroostook County were turned away from receiving shelter assistance in 2015,” said Deveau, citing numbers from the HUD Homeless Management Information System. Twenty-two Aroostook County veterans were homeless in 2015. Six of them were able to get into a shelter.

“Someone had to step up and assist,” Deveau said, “so we took a military concept and civilianized it.”

On May 1, United Veterans of Maine will close on the property that was Phil’s Florist and Greenhouses in Caribou and begin to convert it into the Dahlgren-Skidgel Farm of Hope. The 12.5-acre site includes five greenhouses, a pole barn, a Quonset hut and an office complex that serves as the United Veterans of Maine headquarters.

Six two-unit cabins will be constructed to house homeless vets, who will also get counseling and job training. Residents will be required to work on the farm for a small wage, learning agricultural skills as well as skills associated with operating a business. David and Patty Corriveau, former owners of the florist business, have volunteered to mentor veterans on growing food for their own use and eventually to sell at a farm stand.

Volunteers from diverse professions are coming forward to apply their skills — from accounting to construction — in support of the project. Caribou’s former code enforcement officer is the construction supervisor, Cary Medical Center’s public affairs director is handling publicity, Northern Builders in Presque Isle offered 100 hours of labor and Haney’s Building Specialties in Caribou will help provide cabinets.

“Carpentry and paint crews from Job Corps have done a phenomenal job,” Deveau said of workers based at the Loring Commerce Center in Limestone, who have helped convert the former retail space into an office building. Reciting name after name of people who have volunteered, Deveau said, “This team will make it work.”

United Veterans of Maine is also seeking United Way and grant support for the project.

The farm is named for two Aroostook County veterans who received the Medal of Honor. Donald Skidgel of Woodland earned the Medal of Honor for service in Vietnam.

World War II veteran Edward Dahlgren of Perham and Mars Hill was the first veteran in Aroostook County to seek treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, according to Hardaker. “Now many [veterans] in the area are getting benefits they would not have but for Ed Dahlgren,” Hardaker said, praising the book, “In the Shadow of the Mountain,” in which Dahlgren’s daughter Susan Dahlgren Daigneault details her father’s experience.

Issues related to PTSD often preclude veterans from gaining admission to homeless shelters, but these veterans will not be turned away from the new Dahlgren-Skidgel Farm of Hope. Deveau said a veteran does not have to be living on the streets to be considered homeless, but also could be “someone close to homeless or living on someone’s couch.”

“United Veterans of Maine’s goal is simple: to provide shelter and coordinate services for the most deserving population … our veterans.”

Any veteran who served honorably may be a full voting member of the organization and nonmilitary supporters of the cause are welcomed as associate members. Deveau said the overwhelming support of Aroostook County donors “who believe in what we’re doing” reignited the fire that drove him to organize the project.

“We’re going to make this happen,” he said. “We believe in taking care of our own.”

A grand opening for the Dahlgren-Skidgel Farm of Hope is scheduled for April 15 at 1 p.m.

Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at olmstead@maine.edu or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.

 


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