BY JANIE ROSMAN
What better way to move into a new home than with a welcoming party from your new neighbors.
Since 2006 Building Homes for Heroes® — founded by Clarkstown South High School alumni and childhood friends — made a significant difference in the lives of wounded American service members and their families by gifting them mortgage-free homes.
Andrew Pujol founded the national nonprofit, nonpartisan 501(c)(3) with Jon Sigillito, Tony Sigillito, Stephen Barry in 2006 to help remove veterans’ financial burdens, restore individual freedoms, and enable them to lead more independent and productive civilian lives.
Financial planning services, family funding and emergency support further assist everyone home recipient by giving new, and sometimes first-time, homeowners advice and guidance needed to maintain home expenses and to plan for successful futures.
“When the towers came down on September 11, Andy joined an early wave of volunteers in search and rescue,” Treasurer Tony Sigillito recalled. “At some point, exhausted and emotionally drained, he looked around and realized something had to be done to help his country.’
Pujol recalled joining an early search and rescue and loading up his vehicle with supplies to help those involved with enormity and sadness of the task. When veterans came home, he said, “I made a promise to help and lived up to it. It wasn’t easy to do.”
Enlisting the help of his childhood friends, “three of the nicest guys you could ever meet,” they hoped to build one home for a veteran paralyzed from the neck down.
“While the idea was formed on September 11 or shortly thereafter, it came to fruition a few years later, when service men and women were discharged from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center,” Sigillito said.
Their lifelong friendship manifested itself under Pujol’s leadership when he founded, and they formed a 501(c)(3). Prior to building the first home in 2006 they gave money to other charities. Neither Pujol nor anyone on the Building Homes for Heroes® Board of Directors takes a paid dollar for their work.
Their charity gifted 13 homes in 2013 and 23 homes in 2014.
Sigillito said recipients spend between six and 36 months in the hospital, and then the organization is notified. “There’s an application process, and we’re recommended due to our high success rate,” he said.
Chad Gottlieb worked with Pujol in his for-profit company and was in his backyard when Pujol was thinking of names for the organization. “He always helped with military charities,” he said.
Building Homes for Heroes buys the land for a one-story home, Director of Construction Development Chad Gottlieb explained. “We want to make sure that we put a soldier where he wants to live, somewhere near a VA Hospital or Center or close to family and friends.”
If a veteran is selected for (built from the) ground up home, he or she has to be disabled. “We seek out and find land within a budget, get an architect to donate services, and once the renderings are complete, we take the veteran’s story and see who will donate services.”
“We transition them from the hospital and hopelessness to someone who goes into a home,” Sigillito said. Everyone from the fire and police departments, the Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and community groups help the new family feel welcome in their new home.
In 2012 Building Homes for Heroes was chosen as a partner in JPMorgan Chase’s Home Ownership Assistance program, which is a second way to gift homes.
JPMorgan Chase provides dwellings for the nonprofit, which identifies and selects recipient families of severely-wounded veterans across the United States. Building Homes for Heroes® renovates each home to meet the needs of deserving recipients by making them ADA-accessible, adding ramps, removing for those who are visually impaired, etc.
“Chase and Advance Auto Parts are our largest supporters,” Sigillito said. With 10 full-time employees and more than 5,000 volunteers, the group is able to increase its home gifting. He cites the real estate markets lack of adequate housing as another impetus for the group’s startup.
“The advantage is we’re New York- based, and our original board members are from New York,” he said. Florida is the most active state (most homes are requested there) since many soldiers need to be near trauma centers or have young children and find it difficult to live where they grew up (northeast).
“Chase has pledged to donate 1,000 mortgage-free homes to non-profits, like Building Homes for Heroes®, who support veterans in need by 2016,” Building Homes for Heroes® wrote on its website. It hopes to provide a minimum of 10 homes to veterans each year through this initiative.
“Support around the county is growing,” Pujol said. “To this day I donate all my time.”
Homes have been built in 17 states so far, and while none are in Rockland County, three are in the works on Long Island. The organization anticipates gifting 30 to 35 homes this year. For information, visit http://buildinghomesforheroes.org or call 516-684-9220.
Send your idea for Unsung Heroes to [email protected]