A yearlong effort to build a “smart” house in The Villages for a disabled Army veteran took a huge leap forward Friday with an official groundbreaking ceremony.
Villagers for Veterans, led by founder and president Marie Bogdonoff, has worked tirelessly over the past year to raise money to build the house for Sgt. Pam Kelly, a 17-year Army veteran who was injured while training for deployment to Iraq.
Kelly’s spine was crushed when a cable snapped during a sling load operation. And as a result of her injuries, the Army medic, who lives alone in the Tampa area, was permanently paralyzed and has very limited use of one arm.
On Friday, as shovels full of dirt were being tossed in the ceremony at the vacant lot on Teakwood Lane in the Village of Orange Blossom Gardens, Kelly took a moment to reflect on the past year and the fact that she will most likely be a Villager sometime this spring.
“It’s enormous,” she said. “It’s gratitude. It’s grateful. It’s a blessing. It’s a godsend that this is happening and I have Marie in my life.”
Bogdonoff said she’s extremely thankful to Villagers and others who have made donations to Villagers for Veterans to make Kelly’s home a reality. She said the organization, which started five years ago with the goal of providing greater mobility and independence to veterans who had lost limbs and their ability to move, has raised enough money in just one year to pay for two-thirds of Kelly’s house.
So with more fundraisers coming in the near future – see Villagersforveterans.org for information – and some donations of products needed to build the home, Bogdonoff said they felt very comfortable moving ahead with construction, which will begin this month and hopefully be completed by April or May.
“I always said The Villages is not for everybody but for some people, it’s the best place,” Bogdonoff said. “When Pam comes here, she’s so happy. She can go everywhere in her wheelchair. She can’t do that anyplace else. So we said, ‘This is a place for you.’”
Bogdonoff recalled her first few encounters with Kelly and how quiet and reserved she was. But she said she started to open up as they continued to invite her to the community for visits. And when efforts to get her a house built by other organizations fell through because Kelly wasn’t a combat veteran, Bogdonoff said members of Villagers for Veterans knew it was time to take matters into their own hands.
“I said, ‘This is The Villages. We can do it here,’” she said. “We presented it to the board and everybody loved the idea. So we kicked it off in January and here we are a year later.”
For her part, Kelly, who recently participated in a flightless Villages Honor Flight, said she can hardly wait to become a resident of the Historic Side of Florida’s Friendliest Hometown.
“It’s going to be exciting,” she said. “The Villages people are going to have to be prepared for a tornado to come in because I’m ready,” she added with a huge smile.
As for her feelings for Kelly, Bogdonoff said it’s been a very special year as they have become extremely close while working on the project together.
“One of the nice things that we have in Villagers for Veterans is that those veterans that we help, we stay in touch with. They become part of our family,” Bogdonoff said. “Pam hasn’t only become part of the Villagers for Veterans family, she has become part of my own personal family.”
When asked about Bogdonoff and everything she and Villagers for Veterans have done this past year, Kelly looked away and wiped away tears.
“I’m not a crier; I’m a soldier,” she said. “But when it comes to Marie, she’s the family I never had.”
Friday’s event also included an appearance by 94-year-old Irving Locker, a resident of the Village of Santiago and Army veteran who participated in D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge. And John “Capt. Woody” Woodall emceed the event, coming all the way from Fairmont, N.C., where he serves as president and founder of Camp for Heroes. Woodall is good friends with actor Gary Sinise and will be back in The Villages in February when the actor and veterans advocate signs copies of his new book as a guest of Villagers for Veterans.
“This is awesome,” said Woodall, who originally introduced Kelly to Bogdonoff. “Pam is a wonderful lady. She sacrificed a lot and I really feel it’s the least we can do to give back to her and to do what we can do to make her life more comfortable.”
Ann Pelle, captain of The Villages Twirlers and Drum Corps, agreed. She called Kelly a hero and thanked for her for service. And she said it was personally important for her to team to perform because they are huge supporters of veterans and she has several family members – her father, husband Mike, son Sean Crittenden and son-in-law John Vebrnick – who have served in the military.
“I think it’s awesome that Villagers have all come together to give a hero a home,” she said. “So anything that we can do as a team to support that, we’re going to be out there for it. Pam is a hero to us and we want to support our heroes.”