By midday Saturday, dozens of volunteers had laid most of the sod and teamed up to add some curb appeal to the home being built for Marine Staff Sgt. Jeremy Austin and his family in Chicwood Estates. The volunteer day was yet another step in a building project launched last fall.
Homes for Our Troops (HFOT), a non-profit organization whose slogan is “Building Homes, Rebuilding Lives,” has been building a house from the ground up for the Austins—Jeremy, his wife, Crissy, and their two young sons—since the end of November. Everything from building materials to manpower has been donated to the project, and Saturday’s effort brought out people from all around the New River Valley who quickly went to work with landscaping supplies and assistance from Grass Assassins of Christiansburg.
“It really means a lot to us to be able to come out here and volunteer our time,” said Austin Sixbey, a representative of Grass Assassins. “Everybody sees us out, you know, kind of just doing our thing, and to take some time off and take time to help out veterans and a good cause; it means a lot for us to represent that were more than just a landscape company. We do care about our community as well.”
Among the force were a dozen students from a Radford High School volunteer group called Youth Encouraging Service (YES). Makenna and Carlee Kleppin were busy settling plants into their new homes outside the Austins’ front door.
“I think it’s great to help others,” said Makenna. She and her sister explained they had done some other projects with their church in the past. “This is the first (project) for YES as a group, but we plan to do more,” she said.
The home has been a joint effort between HFOT, Highlander Construction, and numerous other businesses and organizations across the NRV over the past five months. Even Texas Roadhouse of Christiansburg got involved, providing lunches for volunteers at events in November and again Saturday.
People of all ages swarmed the worksite, raking, digging, planting, spreading mulch and rolling out sod; putting sweat behind their effort to thank and give back to Austin, who lost both legs and suffered various other injuries in an improvised explosive device (IED) attack during his fifth deployment to Afghanistan in April 2009. Jeremy commented on the generosity of the community and the parts they have played in making his family’s dream a reality.
“It’s pretty amazing, it really is, to see everything really taking shape and going from a jobsite or worksite, to a home,” he said. “We were out here this past Thursday and Friday, and Wednesday and Thursday were when they really started finishing a lot of stuff with the excavation and grading. Those guys from R.L. Phipps did a phenomenal job. It really helped everything take shape and anyone from the community who was down here for the build brigade who comes out here, they’re going to see the difference like we did… it means a lot to my family and I just to see the community coming out and supporting us.”
With work yet to be completed on the interior of the home, it is still unknown when the four will move in, but the excitement and gratitude can be seen on their faces. Asked what she was looking forward to most about the home, Crissy said she looks forward to Jeremy “having freedom to get around.”
“I don’t have to worry about him getting hurt or anything,” she said. “Words can’t express my gratitude for everybody coming and helping with everything. We’re very appreciative of everything that everyone’s doing.” She continued to express her thanks to HFOT for allowing them “to have a house that’s adaptable for Jeremy.”
Another volunteer group there Saturday was from Auburn Baptist Church in Riner. Brian Stanford took a break from unrolling sod to share his reason for volunteering, as well as a common bond with Austin, which he discovered during November’s “build brigade.”
“Just a sense of community,” said Stanford. “We’re here, five of us from Auburn Baptist Church, and Jeremy was actually in the same unit I was in, however 10 years difference. I didn’t find that out until we were actually raising the house, so that’s pretty neat.”
Stanford said he loved the experience and the opportunity to offer support. “These guys that go out and sacrifice their lives for us to have the freedoms we do, even being a veteran, knowing what he went through and stuff, I just think it’s something good to do, and continue to do,” he said. “I don’t think America does enough of it, so just to support and be there for them—not just now when we’re doing this stuff but later on down the road they’re going to need even more, so don’t quit on them just because we have a few days to do this.”
As for Jeremy, he’s looking forward to the volunteers’ reactions to the finished product.
“It’s going to be a phenomenal thing when everything is done,” he said. “I hope everybody gets a chance to come out when the key ceremony is, so they get to see the fruits of their labor and supporting us.”
What he’s looking forward to most is, “just owning a home. This will be the first home that my wife and I have ever owned, so it’s going to be a great thing going from always renting a home to owning a home, and being able to put our own personal touches on it,” Jeremy said. “It’s going to be great just to have a place to call our own, is the biggest thing.”