Vets Building Homes For Vets

Jim Smith
Jim Smith

On Earth Day as 18 veterans were presented with diplomas for completing a five-week course in energy-efficient construction, there were politicians; do-gooders; federal, state, county and town officials; and employees of a bank, a credit union, an insurance company, The Home Depot, PSE&G, National Grid and Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie applauding them.

The veterans had received free instruction in the VetsBuild program sponsored by United Way and United Veterans Beacon House, which runs 30 homeless shelters and recommends students. At a house enclosed in a one-year-old Deer Park warehouse, the students were trained to retrofit homes by diagnosing air leaks and plugging them, and performing other tasks. Some of them now will construct a home for five homeless vets in Huntington Station. Its heating system will be powered by solar panels which are expected to produce more heat and electricity than they consume.

So what we have here is vets building green homes for vets, a win-win.

“The vets who live in these homes,” said Steve Wertheim, United Way of Long Island’s senior vice president for housing and green initiatives, “will have zero expenses for energy. You’re looking at the next generation of housing and the next generation of green builders right here. They’ll be producing a house that will last a hundred years.”

The program was made possible partly by a $600,000 grant over three years from the New York department of State. There was additional support from Bank of America, Bethpage Federal Credit Union, JP Morgan Chase, GEICO, Knapp Swezey Foundation and the Long Island Regional Economic Development Council. Most of those groups sent men and women wearing dark suits and smiles to the press conference at the Huntington Opportunity Resource Center. It was filmed by NBC, News12 and WLNY and also covered by Newsday and myself.

“We can write the check,” said United Way of LI president and CEO Theresa Regnante, “because the people in this room wrote a check.” The previous day, Regnante had appeared on the Fox Business News show “Varney & Co.” to discuss VetsBuild, which organizers hope can be replicated nationally. Wertheim said, “the idea is to remove utility bills as a consideration. This is going to be one of the most advanced projects not only on Long island but in the country.”

Before a groundbreaking ceremony, representatives of Senator Chuck Schumer, Rep. Steve Israel and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone heard Huntington Town Supervisor Frank Petrone say ”This is pretty historic as far as veterans building homes for veterans; we want to thank you [United Way and Beacon House] for leading the way locally. Vets, keep going, baby! You’re home now.”

Cromartie, who said he has a special interest in veterans, joined Regnante and Beacon House president/CEO Frank Amalfitano in distributing the diplomas and congratulating the graduates. “Thank you for what you guys have done,” Cromartie said. “I’m very proud of you. You’ve shown you can come home and do something for the community. I look up to you guys. You guys are more of a hero than I am.”

Asked about water bills, VetsBuild director Fabrizio Bustos, an army combat veteran, said, “You can’t make your own water [so there will be water bills] but we’re talking about an electric boiler powered by solar panels to feed the house and a cooling unit that pumps for 10 minutes and can maintain the temperature in the house for the entire day.”

Elvis Vargas, 45, an army veteran from Lake Ronkonkoma and Beacon House’s case manager for the program, said many graduates of VetsBuild will go on to college courses in the construction field of their choice. But Steve Muzyka of East Northport, United Way of LI’s director of housing and training services, said he’s recommending several graduates for hiring immediately by contractors.

Vargas said he graduated from the program after having been unemployed for nine months and that “It changed my life.” He was thankful that Amalfitano hired him to identify and mentor other students. “They gave to us,” Vargas said, “and now we’re giving back to them.”

Wertheim presented a plaque to YouthBuild (a companion program) graduate Gabe Orengo, 27, of Central Islip for being the first Long Islander certified as a Building Performance Institute home energy professional retrofit installer. Orengo had lived in a shelter for a year after his family was evicted from its home. “If it wasn’t for this program,” Orengo said, “I don’t know where I’d be right now.”

VetsBuild graduate Englebert Benjamin, 34, an army veteran from Bay Shore , said he sees himself “building energy-efficient homes. I like helping people and life’s too short.”

Fellow graduate Jenn Baker, 58, of St. James, who has spent 32 years on active duty and in the army reserves in the medical corps, plans to attend Suffolk Community College in Brentwood in the fall and hopes to recruit other women for VetsBuild through the school’s Student Veterans Association. “We frame, we measure, we staple. My interest is in the health of a house, how it’s built, whether it’s sealed properly. That part of the course was fascinating.”

For information on VetsBuild, click on, Facebook United Way of Long Island or Twitter @unitedwayli, or call Vargas at 631-601-5721, or email him at

—Jim Smith, 66, of Williston Park, is a Vietnam War veteran and has been a contributor to theMineola American since 1988. He retired Dec. 31, 2014 after, being a Newsday reporter and editor since 1966.

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Author of Heroes to the End: An Army Correspondent's Last Days in Vietnam, Jim Smith writes the Vets View column for Mineola American.

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