Offering veterans a helping hand
Chris Hanson’s concern for the plight of military veterans is more than just a job, it’s a mission.
The former Tomah Chamber of Commerce director, Hanson is now president and CEO of the Veterans Assistance Foundation (VAF), a Wisconsin based non-profit organization that does as its name implies – assists veterans.
The VAF is currently in the process of renovating two buildings it recently acquired in downtown Tomah to be used as veteran housing and a veteran-run coffee shop.
Looking at Hanson’s background, it’s almost like he was groomed for his position with the VAF.
He is a 24-year Navy veteran, who still serves in the Navy Reserve. A former combat medic attached to the Marines, Hanson was mobilized in October 2006, while working as the Chamber director.
The Navy deployed him to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany where the majority of wounded servicemen from Afghanistan and Iraq came through.
“Out of the entire time we were there, there were only two days we didn’t have wounded.” said Hanson, whose resolve to help his fellow veterans was likely bolstered by his one-year stint there as patient administrative chief.
That also is likely why he jumped at the chance to head up the VAF when he was offered the job. He had been promoted to public affairs officer in the Navy Reserve and had a lengthy list of contacts through his position at the Chamber.
But it’s his understanding of veterans’ needs and issues that really qualifies him for the role -- especially homeless and struggling veterans.
“Veterans pose different challenges. Many suffer from mental health issues -- PTSD, substance abuse,” said Hanson. “They’ve seen and lived a different life than most people. They’ve seen and had a lot of horrendous things happen to them.”
Jobs and housing are the two services the VAF project in Tomah is focusing on.
“There’s a lack of eligible and willing landlords to work with veterans,” said Hanson, pointing out the project will address that with 11 apartments for low-income veteran housing on the second floor of the old Hardware Hank building at 1118 Superior Ave.
The plan is to renovate the downstairs of the building into a coffee shop and thrift store to help address the jobs issue.
“This project, with everything we’re doing, is to employ our veterans at the coffee shop,” said Hanson, adding the VAF is looking to bring veteran peer support specialists on board to help them run the shop.
The VAF also purchased the neighboring building, the former Ted’s Café/Tattoo shops at 1120 Superior Ave., which will be torn down to create parking and green space.
Hanson said the coffee shop will be a safe, quiet place for veterans to meet with others who have shared their life experience.
The corner green space will offer a patio with café tables and chairs for the coffee shop, flagpole, veterans monument, trees and landscaping. The back portion of that lot will be converted into parking for the upstairs apartments.
Hanson said there are no federal grants available for the coffee shop and the VAF, a private non-profit, will require the generosity of the public to help fund it and local tradesmen to help renovate it.
“We are asking for community members to consider donating to the project. One-hundred percent of the amount they donate will go into this project, with none going toward existing staff salaries or operational expenses,” Hanson explained. The foundation is also looking for donations of household items in good condition for the thrift store.
According to Hanson, the project could take anywhere between 12-18 months to complete, depending upon how quickly donations come in.
“We’re expecting quite a bit of assistance,” said Hanson. “Anybody with a strong back they’re willing to put into it, we’re willing to work with them.”
Those wishing to donate or volunteer should call (608) 372-8387. All donations are tax deductible.