AVON PARK - Since March, military veterans of Avon Park and from the Lakeland Veterans Center have been gathering inside the confines of the Delaney Heights Community Center to socialize, find out about benefits, get service guidance and most importantly, have a place to discuss problems and get counseling.
But thanks to a grant from the Sebring Home Depot, the approximately four to 10 veterans who have been regularly meeting inside the center will be experiencing a bit of fresh air. A new, 19-feet by 55-feet cement deck and 16-feet by 16-feet covered, wooden veranda is being built behind the community center, 541 Alton St., and will be used as the veterans' center's Readjustment Counseling Services.
Called the "Veterans Veranda," it's being built using a $4,000 grant provided by The Home Depot Foundation, which paid for supplies and materials and distributed through the Avon Park Housing Authority. The Sebring Home Depot, 2303 N. U.S. 27, provided labor and 16 employees volunteered about 20 hours of service Dec. 9, 11 and 12.
It's official opening is being planned for the end of January, said Larry Shoeman, Avon Park Housing Authority director. Shoeman, in his seventh year with the authority, said the new shelter and deck replaces a shuffleboard court which was no longer used and was part of public housing built in 1968. He said over the past three years, residents in the area wanted to make better use of the courts and when the grant came in, the time was right for the Veranda.
The shuffleboard courts were torn out in mid-October and currently, the cement court and most of the gazebo with an arbor-style covering are finished. Shoeman said by the opening, six to eight planters, wooden seating and cross enclosing slats would be completed and students from the art department from South Florida State College would be painting an adjacent mural, "Freedom is not Free."
Most of the work has been done through the guidance of Home Depot's Merchandising Assistant Manager David Wentlandt. He said the Hope Depot had about five different community projects in 2013, including the veranda, as part of their "Team Depot" outreach initiative.
It will all be to make veterans feel more comfortable and at ease in an outdoor, open area. He said no alcohol would be permitted and smoking would only be allowed in a designated area. He said the most important factor will be the ease of sharing and communing.
"I think it will create an area for intermingling between the veterans here and off-site to come for counseling services," he said. "We want the community to know this is a great governmental asset they can capitalize on."
Besides referral services, veterans' center counselors will use the center and gazebo to provide clinical intervention counseling to veterans and their families, said Jesse Coulter, Lakeland Veterans Center Readjustment Counseling Service Team Leader. He said the veranda would allow ex-soldiers to "reflect and commune" during counseling sessions and intermingle with fellow veterans that live within Delaney Heights, the neighborhood where the community center stands. He said veterans of Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somolia, the Persian Gulf and a few from World War II and Korea have been attending.
"They're usually inside offices. The veranda provides an open setting, an open rap group feel and they can see the sun," he said.
Some of the veterans who have used the community center for counseling and advising services said although they can get what they need inside, the open feel of the gazebo-veranda will be a nice change, especially for veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptons, said Larry Roberts, Avon Park American Legion Post 74 motorcycle riders service officer. A U.S. Army veteran of Iraq Desert Shield-Storm who served from 1988 to 2001, he said he looks at the Veranda as a place for "family" to meet.
"I look at the World War II and Korea guys as my grandfathers, Vietnam vets as my fathers, Desert Storm as my brothers and Iraq-Afghanistan as my sons; They're my second family. This will be a great place to get together," he said.
For information, call (863) 452-4432.