Kahya Fox

Transitioning from military service to civilian life can be a big change. Having support from peers and a larger community can help make a transitioning veteran’s next chapter a smooth one. Communities offering veterans support can be found throughout Wisconsin, and the community of La Crosse is but one example. Ahead of Veterans Day 2018, Habitat for Humanity La Crosse Area launched Habitat for Heroes, an initiative bringing Wisconsin veterans together on a build site to help give a local veteran and his or her family a new home.

We recently spoke with the organization’s executive director Kahya Fox about the new initiative and why bringing veterans together is so important to the people of La Crosse and Wisconsin.

Q: Where did the idea for Habitat for Heroes originate, and how did it come together?

A: Habitat for Humanity La Crosse Area started a three-year strategic planning process in 2016. One of the messages that came forward from our focus groups and local surveys was the need to do more for our local veteran community. We listened and prioritized the creation of a veterans committee for our 2018-2020 strategic plan. Working with staff, board members and long-term volunteers who were veterans, we began having discussions about forming the veterans committee in the spring of 2018. Using the relationships we already had, we reached out to local veteran organizations to set up our first informational meetings. From there, it has just exploded. Advertising and word of mouth have brought more people to the table. We’ve developed goals and timelines for the committee, including aiming to encourage interaction, skill development and support for veterans through volunteerism and to break ground on a home for a local veteran and his or her family by this fall. This will be a home for a veteran built by veterans. 

Q: Is Habitat for Heroes a sign of a strong veterans community in La Crosse and Wisconsin?

A: Absolutely. The amount of support we have received is indicative of the strength of our veterans community.

Q: Why create this initiative for veterans?

A: Local veteran housing is an important topic. In 2016, the Homeless Coalition in La Crosse made eradicating veteran homelessness a priority, with a goal of finding housing for all homeless veterans in less than sixth months. Turning to permanent affordable housing solutions for veterans through home ownership is a next step to addressing the needs of veterans in our community. We believe that serving those who served us is a moral obligation. Providing these opportunities to veterans in our community is our way of giving back.

Q: Why is it important for veterans to interact with other veterans? How does Habitat for Heroes cultivate this?

A: One of the veterans on our Habitat for Heroes committee put it very succinctly: “Veterans chose to serve our country by enlisting. They want to find ways to continue serving after they come home.” By bringing veterans from all branches of the military, from all age groups, together on a build site, we are providing a safe place for them to come together and connect through their shared experiences. Older veterans can help younger veterans bridge the gap and ease the transition to civilian life with fulfilling community engagement. They can share stories, resources and support. One of the simplest ways to recruit volunteers is to just ask. We’ve never asked the veteran community before. Now we are. And they are stepping forward to serve their community.

Q: What can veterans who join Habitat for Heroes expect?

A: Veterans can expect a safe and caring environment, predicated on common experiences and shared values. Working together throughout the day on building a home provides plenty of time to talk, laugh and create friendships. If a veteran was unsure whether they wanted to volunteer or not, I would say, “Give it a try.” The veterans who have worked together on our homes have found it to be a rewarding experience. As one of our volunteers said, “It’s nice doing something together and putting in some hard work. Just knowing vets helped with the project I think makes it even more special.”

Q: What kind of results have you seen so far and what does the future hold for Habitat for Heroes?

A: We’re very excited about the response we’ve received so far. We invited 40 veterans to join us on the build site on Nov. 8 and Nov. 10, and all 40 slots were filled within two weeks of sending the requests. We have six more build days scheduled this year, and we already have dozens of volunteers signed up. The public response has been so heartening. People have made donations to the program, shared their words of support and many have asked, “How can I help?” It’s amazing to see how our community has come together behind our efforts. With such overwhelming initial support, we hope to continue providing volunteer opportunities and homes for veterans for many years to come.

Q: What benefit do veterans receive from working with other veterans as part of Habitat for Heroes?

A: A variety of studies have shown support from peers is very important to veterans, helping them understand they are not alone and providing safe places to express themselves, new resources and fresh perspectives. Creating volunteer opportunities specifically for veterans we feel will provide even greater benefits. But they also get the added benefits that come from doing good. By working together to build homes, they get to leave the build site knowing that they helped a family in need. Doing good just feels good.

Q: Why do you think La Crosse and Wisconsin are great places for veterans to live? Why is the community of veterans so strong here?

A: La Crosse and Wisconsin provide so much support for local veterans. We have such a wide range of resources for veterans, many of which are represented by the members of our Habitat for Heroes Committee: the Tomah VA, the local VFW, the La Crosse Area Veterans Mentor Program, the La Crosse County Veterans Office, Disabled American Veterans, the UW-La Crosse Veterans Organization, Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association, the La Crosse Veterans Center and so many more. We are a community that supports one another and believes in giving back. The support for our Habitat for Heroes program really proves that.

Q: How can veterans get involved?

A: Veterans can sign up for one of our Veteran Build Days or find more information about the Habitat for Heroes program by visiting HabitatLaCrosse.org or emailing volunteer@habitatlacrosse.org.

Note: Some of Ms. Fox’s answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.