When Donnie Davis, a pastor from Franklinville, New Jersey, got a call about abandoned 277-acre campground, he was asked if he wanted to build a church on the property.
Instead, Davis had a much more ambitious idea.
He decided to make the space a temporary housing community for veterans with PTSD.
Davis is not only a pastor, he is a U.S. Air Force veteran—one who has personally suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and knows firsthand that the road to recovery is a long and difficult one, and oftentimes victims don’t get the proper care they need.
“We’re real good at saying we ‘leave no man behind’ — but we do,” Davis told NJ.com. “We come back to a civilian world, you get a 30-minute class and you’re done.”
“No one talks about the struggles, no one talks about the nightmares, no one wants to talk, period.”
But Davis wants to give veterans more than a place to talk. Through his project, dubbed Operation Safe Haven, he wants to truly help them get back on their feet by providing all the resources they need.
The biggest part of that is to provide shelter through “tiny houses”—simple but cozy homes that provide basic living essentials and can be constructed relatively cheap. They offer about 300 square feet of living space.
They’re not meant as permanent housing, rather, they’re designed as transitional spaces. Veterans can stay, no charge, for up to two years, and in that time they’ll be able to save money and apply for jobs so they can move out on their own.
They’ll also be able to take advantage of a number of other resources. The site will offer physical and emotional therapy, service dogs, job training courses, therapy horses, and more.
“The house is easy, but providing the 24-hour care, on-call counselors — those are the things that we need to put in place,” Davis told NJ.com.
All of this on top of the serenity of the location, surrounded by peaceful woods—an ideal place for recovery.
Of course, Davis couldn’t do it alone.
Davis set up a GoFundMe page to raise donations for the project, which has currently made over $200,000 of its $500,000 goal.
Local businesses and organizations have helped by donating supplies and labor, or by sponsoring fundraising events.
But a lot of the volunteer work comes from veterans. The vets living on the site rent-free are encouraged to give back by helping out on the grounds and with maintenance, but many outside veterans have volunteered because they believe in the cause.
One veteran, William Matthews, raised enough money to fund two houses. “We’ve been third class citizens for so long,” he told NJ.com.
“It’s too late for me, but it’s not too late for anyone else.”
The project has received praise from veteran advocacy groups.
“Any number of veterans without a safe place to call home is unacceptable, and programs like Operation Safe Haven are vital to continue efforts in communities across the country to end veteran homelessness,” Randy Brown, a spokesman for the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans told Philly.com.
“This project is yet another great example of the creativity and passion of people around the country who want to give veterans a hand up out of homelessness.”
The site is still under construction, but the first residents are expected to move in soon. The camp had an open house where they showed their progress to the community over the Memorial Day weekend.
The realization is a dream-come-true for Davis, who has been overwhelmed by the response.
“People from all across the country have come together to support this. The calls and donations we get are unbelievable,” Davis said, according to his church’s website. “Every morning is Christmas morning.”