Pastor Donnie Davis is on a spiritual mission to transform an old South Jersey campground into a place of tranquility for homeless veterans.
The Amazing Grace Ministries has embarked on an ambitious project to spruce up a sprawling 277-acre waterfront property in Gloucester County.
Davis purchased the abandoned site in Franklinville in June and has recruited an army of volunteers for Operation Safe Haven, a peaceful retreat where combat veterans can get back on their feet. The vets will be selected by the Veterans Administration.
"It doesn't matter what branch they are in. I have to take care of them," said Davis, 42, a former police officer and Air Force veteran.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, nearly 40,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. Over the course of a year, approximately twice that many experience homelessness and about 1.4 million others are considered at risk of homelessness, experts say.
Davis plans to provide free housing for as many as 60 homeless veterans in "micro-housing" units - tiny houses - where veterans can stay free for up to two years. The veterans will have access to mental health services, peer counseling, and job search assistance.
Construction is expected to be completed by the end of the year on the first five houses, which have been paid for in full. The first occupants are expected in January.
Located on Delsea Drive, the property formerly was the Village Dock campground. It was vacant for about a decade, fell into disrepair, and was targeted by vandals and squatters.
Last month, about 200 volunteers showed up to lend a hand clearing the grounds, removing debris and cutting down trees and clearing overgrown shrubs.
Home Depot sent 100 employees from nine stores in South Jersey and donated $10,000, which will be used to pay for a house on the property, Davis said. Joseph Jester, a local welder, and his employees donated their services to dig a 110-foot well that will supply water to the compound. A Folsom module home company, 4-U, is supplying the homes.
"It was something I thought I had to do," said Jester, 50, of Franklin Township. "It's something good that can benefit other people. We don't do enough for our vets."
When Ida Gonzalez, of Spotswood, heard about the project, she said she knew immediately it was the perfect cause to support in memory of her son, Michael, 20, who was killed by an IED while serving in the Army in Iraq in 2008. She donated $10,500 to cover the cost of a module home.
"I know he would approve," said Gonzalez, 55. "It's not just giving the veterans a home and forgetting about them. It's an entire package."
The project has largely been funded by donations and grants. Davis started a GoFundMe campaign, hoping to initially raise about $500,000 for the project.
"I can't wait until I have a grant," Davis said. "I don't know where I'm going. I'm just doing whatever God tells me to do."
He said there has been interest nationwide for the program, including an 18-year-old Arkansas girl who called and said, "My dad needs help. Is this a place he can come?"
Davis told her yes.
Like many of the veterans he hopes to help, Davis battled drug addiction and suffers from post traumatic stress disorder. Davis said an alarming statistic moved him to act: Every day, 20 veterans commit suicide.
"This is what I am called to do," he said.
Because there is so much to do, work will be done in phases. One side of the property, divided by a 65-acre man-made lake, will be used for housing for veterans.
The modest houses, measuring about 300 square feet each, will include a kitchen, living space, a bedroom and bath. There are also tennis courts, a baseball field and several buildings on the property that need repairs.
A covered bridge leads to Operation Safe Haven, where the vets will live. Water from a nearby dam rolls gently. Davis says the symbolism is a message for veterans that their past is "water under the bridge."
The project also calls for a community center that will be used for the church's worship services, and training and classes for the veterans. The church has already set up a food pantry on the site that serves 150 area residents monthly, Davis said.
"We're not building a church for Sunday. I'm building it for Monday through Saturday," Davis said during an interview last week while riding on a motorized scooter.
For now, the church holds worship services at nearby Delsea Regional High School. Outdoor sunrise services will resume at the former campground in the spring.
The church moved to the property last summer from Williamstown after Davis purchased the site for $1.5 million. Davis resides in an eight-bedroom log home on the grounds with his wife, Jennifer, a special education teacher, and their five children.
Raised by missionaries, Davis served in the Air Force from 1993 to 1997 and was assigned to the Presidential Honor Guard. He also spent five years as a police officer in Prince George's County, Md.
Davis started his nondenominational church three years ago, although he said he "never wanted to be a pastor." But he said his calling was "to protect and serve."
"Where else can I help families? The love that God has shown me I have to show to everybody else."
So, he answered the call to pastor and chose a name for the church from one of his favorite hymns:
"Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
Was blind, but now I see."