Amazing Grace Community Curch – Operation Safe Haven.here at the ministries Camp Ground, L-R, Pastor Donnie Davis, local 19- Bryan Bush, Local 19 and vet Paul Soltys and Local 19, Luke Gordon
By Breanna Ruiz
Local unions, veterans, members of Amazing Grace Ministries, and community members gathered on Saturday, May 27 at the Village Dock in Franklinville, NJ, to celebrate Operation Safe Haven. A nonprofit organization that builds micro-homes for homeless combat veterans, Operation Safe Haven is turning 277 acres of forgotten land into a beacon of hope for veterans in need.
Members of Sheet Metal Workers Local 19 stand outside their trucks with big smiles at Village Dock, a once abandoned campground located in Franklinville, New Jersey. Robust laughter fills the air. Two things are evident when encountering Local 19. They’re not just a union; they’re a family. A family that appears to have a minimum six-foot height requirement to become a member!
A giant check for $7,500, donated to Operation Safe Haven from Local 19, stands at the center of the event. Rather than awaiting praise for the generous donation, Local 19 members Luke Gordon, Bryan Bush, Paul Soltys, Ron Deichert, Bryan Blum, and Michael Guinan make sure to greet attending vets before trying their best to blend in.
Most people work for a paycheck, especially when it comes to physical labor, but that is not the case for the volunteers of Local 19. The union has not only donated money in support of this grand venture to help homeless vets, but they have also provided services, such as attaching the roofs and siding onto the micro-homes, completely free of charge.
The project organizer, Luke Gordon, served in the United States Army for eight years. Gordon, a humble man who doesn’t desire recognition for serving both his community and country, has just one reason for being involved in Operation Safe Haven. “I have to. It’s the right thing to do,” says Gordon.
Bryan Bush, Assistant Business Manager of Local 19 and also an organizer of this project, expresses his gratitude for Gordon and other veterans. “Luke brought this to our attention. Without him, we wouldn’t have known. The union has over 4,500 members; hundreds of them are vets. We’re doing this for them. Without him, or the vets, we wouldn’t be here,” says Bush.
Amazing Grace Ministries’ pastor and Operation Safe Haven founder, Donnie Davis, says that Gordon reached out to him about the project. “When I first met him and Bryan and all those guys I asked them, ‘What do you want out of this?’ And they said, ‘Nothing, we don’t want anyone to know we’re here. We just want to help.’ That’s how they’ve been for the past year. I love those guys. They’re my brothers.”
Unions like Local 19 have played a significant role in Operation Safe Haven’s success thus far. “Local 19 has been phenomenal. I mean their support has just been outstanding,” says Davis. “We’ve had help from many directions. JPC Group Inc. donated a track loader and operator for a month and just helped us clean this whole entire property out. Northeast Mechanical will do all the plumbing and the electrical work. Joe Jester installed a $20,000 well on the property, a brand new one, totally free. Cranes Incorporated were the ones that donated a crane and their operator yesterday and lifted all the micro-houses. The unions have been phenomenal. I can’t say enough,” Davis says.
What started out as nothing more than a conversation over a cup of coffee between Donnie Davis and his best friend Sergeant Ron Kolley of the Gloucester County Prosecutor’s Office, is becoming a reality. “Tiny House was on TV in the background. And I was like Ron, man, what if we built micro-houses like that for vets, because no one takes care of vets and cops anymore, and we just let them live there for free? From there we just started brainstorming, and the day that we signed the paperwork, we already had the money raised for the first house,” says Davis.
According to data from the Department of Veteran Affairs, roughly 20 veterans a day commit suicide. Last year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated that nearly 40,000 veterans were homeless on any given night. With these troubling statistics in mind, the goal of Operation Safe Haven is to create a peaceful community for vets where they have the opportunity to rehabilitate both mentally and emotionally.
Retired member of Local 19 and Navy Seal vet, Paul Soltys recalls how it felt to return home from the war. “I felt very much out of place. I wound up being in trouble for a little while, and thank God, I had a great father who served in World War 2. He and I had a lot of conversations, and he straightened me out,” he says while staring off into the distance.
Soltys then points to his chest and with great pride says, “Everything I did in the Vietnam War was from my heart, for my country, nothing else. I don’t need any prestige. I don’t need any honors. I just needed to come home.”
The support Soltys’ father gave him is something Operation Safe Haven strives to provide for veterans struggling with PTSD, anxiety, depression, anger, or what Donnie Davis describes as “stuff.” Along with job assistance and access to mental health services and counseling, veterans can live in the 300-square-foot, fully equipped micro-homes for free for up to two years.
Leaving Village Dock, Donnie Davis smiles and waves goodbye as he passes by on the hayride tour of the property that is packed with people. At this moment Donnie’s word’s come to mind. “At the end of the day, it’s just everyone coming together behind one common cause, and that’s what’s unique about the whole property. It’s a nonprofit. Nobody gets paid anything. We give everything away. That’s it.”