Program lends a hand to vets, seniors

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Todd Mishler | August 4, 2013

WHITEWATER — Life sometimes gets in the way for busy people. But then again, it often creates nearly perfect circumstances when least expected.

Patti O'Brien got to know Rob Gosh about 15 years ago during a fundraiser that the latter was participating in with his wife, Kim.

(Read more stories in Walworth County Sunday HERE.)

That was back when Volunteer Connection, of which O'Brien is executive director, was known as RSVP. They have remained friends, but it was another chance situation that prompted them to get together and decide that something had to be done to help more of Walworth County's less fortunate.

“He is an old friend whose office actually was next to mine when we were in Whitewater,” O'Brien said. “He contacted me about six to eight months ago and said he wanted to do something to help some folks and didn't really know how to go about it.

“He does a lot of high-end contract work in his construction business, but as a favor, somebody asked him to put in a ramp for an elderly couple,” she added. “It turns out the husband had broken his spine and was paralyzed and relegated to a wheelchair, and they could barely get in and out of the house. They basically didn't have plumbing. Rob said, 'We gotta do something.'”

That something has become Volunteer Connection's Quality of Life project.

The goal is to replace or fix toilets, faucets, bathroom grab bars, smoke detectors, door locks or windows. They also may do painting, landscaping or light carpentry and electrical work.

Everything would be for a target audience of senior citizens and home-owning veterans who exist at or below the poverty line and need help.

It was a matter of getting someone to coordinate such efforts — Gosh, who operates Gosh Classic Renovations, became that someone.

“With that older couple ... it was a sad story,” Gosh said. “It's not how I would want my parents to live, so it was simply a matter of somebody stepping up. And there are a lot of veterans who need help when they come back.

“I want to meet with everybody we help to see what the issues are,” Gosh added. “We need to get people behind it. We want them to know that this isn't a handout; it's for people who really need the help. There are even people who can afford to pay but can't do the work. I want to keep an open mind, and I told Patti that I don't want to say no to anybody.”

Reaching that goal started recently as the organization found out it will receive $5,000 in United Way of Walworth County funding for 2013 and again in 2014.

Volunteer Connection, located in Elkhorn, has dozens of qualified people to do the jobs and many businesses who are willing to donate materials, although more supplies and much more funding are being sought.

“We have a lot of qualified volunteers who know their craft,” O'Brien said. “Rob and I talked and then we went to see Joe Peyer at United Way. So, we thought if we joined forces we would carry more power, and it was a natural to put Rob in charge of the project.”

Peyer has been executive director of the United Way for about a year but has been involved in other chapters in Lake Geneva and Delavan over the years.

“We thought this project was worthwhile, so we made an exception so that the grant would start right away this year,” Peyer said. “We thought it would be a good start for them. It's geared to senior citizens, shut-ins, disabled, basically a need-based situation. And while it may be a simple thing for most people, even things such as fixing a toilet, putting in light bulbs or patching a screen door. I mean, if we can keep an 85-year-old from climbing up on a ladder, that's a good thing.”

So, while they start working out the logistics, the juggling act between wanting to get started helping people and providing a strong foundation for the future creates the real challenge.

“The main task is finding the funding, so I've written for a bunch of grants,” O'Brien said. “In a lot of cases we can do the labor if individuals or businesses can pay for the materials. Habitat for Humanity has said they would help with labor if they're not working on houses. A lot of people want to help, and there are a lot of single moms and so many people who could use this help.”

Gosh couldn't agree more.

“Patti has a lot of volunteers and I've got guys I can call to get the projects done, so funding is the biggest issue,” Gosh said. “I've been researching all kinds of grants, and the money is available, but I'm not a grant writer.

“We're getting the United Way grants, but my goal is to get more substantial, more sustainable and stable funding because I don't want to get started and have this thing crumble.

“So my initial idea would be to start with some smaller projects, because funding and applying for grants takes time,” Gosh added. “I would like to make it more company oriented, get somebody on board so this can be more long term. And I would like to expand it to include Jefferson and Rock counties because I see a big need.”

Gosh said another reason he wants to see Quality of Life succeed is because of O'Brien's tireless dedication to Volunteer Connection.

“Everything that Patti and all of her volunteers do saves the county millions of dollars, and a lot of what she does is done for free,” Gosh said. “Maybe this project will help get more funding for Volunteer Connection.”



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