At a sprawling former campground in Gloucester County, Pastor Donnie Davis and others cut a yellow ribbon Friday at the first of many houses that will be offered to homeless veterans.
The tiny log cabin on the waterfront still needs a few finishing touches before move-in day, but Davis wanted the ceremony on Veterans Day to help push completion of the home in a few weeks.
"This is the beginning," said Davis, of Amazing Grace Ministries, whose Operation Safe Haven is transforming the site in Franklinville into a retreat for combat veterans.
The complex will provide free housing for as many as 60 homeless veterans in "micro-housing" - tiny houses - where they can stay free for up to two years. The veterans will have access to mental-health services, peer counseling, and job search assistance.
"It's just fabulous," said Marine veteran Granville Garlic, 66, of Monroeville, who attended the ceremony, leaning on a cane with one hand and clutching a Bible with the other. The Vietnam-era veteran said, "We didn't get too much honor." People "didn't know what to do, so they didn't do nothing."
Davis said the first occupant, to be selected by the church and the Department of Veterans Affairs, is expected to move in by Christmas. So far, at least four veterans have been determined eligible, and applications are pouring in daily, he said.
About 40 people attended the brief ceremony Friday, including a handful of veterans and volunteers who have been helping to spruce up the once-abandoned 277-acre Village Dock campground. After reciting the pledge of allegiance, those at the gathering sang the national anthem.
"It's just great to see people come together to help people who fought for our freedom," said Grace Koller, 17, of Pitman. "I think this property will bless the veterans."
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, nearly 40,000 veterans are homeless on any given night.
Facing a 65-acre man-made lake that divides the former campground, the cabin has a shiny new metal roof installed by union workers who donated their services. A rocking chair sits on the wooden front porch, decorated with a pumpkin and colorful potted mums.
"We're here for our veterans. It's the least we can do," said Bryan J. Bush, assistant business manager of Sheet Metal Workers Local 19.
Bert and Sharon Carpenter of Glassboro presented Davis with a crocheted flag pillow made by Veronica Camp of Philadelphia.
The couple, whose son, Brian, served in the Navy, founded "Honoring Forgotten Heroes," a veterans support group. "He came home differently than when he left," Bert Carpenter said of their 32-year-old son.
Davis, a former police officer and Air Force veteran, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, like many of the veterans he wants to help.
Sidney Cohen, a Cherry Hill psychologist who specializes in treating post-traumatic stress, stopped by Friday's event to offer counseling for the veterans.
"This is amazing," Cohen said.
The cabin is among several buildings that were on the property. Davis decided to refurbish it for the first veteran. Home Depot donated gift cards totaling $10,500 for work on the cabin, he said.
Construction is expected to be completed by the end of the year on the first five new houses, which have been paid for in full. The modest houses, measuring about 300 square feet each, will include a kitchen, living space, a bedroom, and bath.
Since purchasing the property in June for $1.5 million, Davis has been on a mission. The project has been largely funded by donors, and volunteers have pitched in to do everything from clearing debris to drilling a well.
The project also calls for a community center that will be used for the church's worship services, and for training and classes for the veterans. There are also tennis courts, a baseball field, and several other buildings on the property that need repairs.
For more information, contact Amazing Grace Ministries at 325 Pennsylvania Ave., Franklinville, N.J. 08232, visit www.agccnj.com, or call 856-513-6114.