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Renovated house offers  hope for homeless veterans

Jeff Gilbert founder Hope for Tomorrow has been working from architectural drawings for months is finally seeing his visicome fruition.

Jeff Gilbert, founder of Hope for Tomorrow, has been working from the architectural drawings for months and is finally seeing his vision come to fruition. Built in 1857, the latest Hope for Tomorrow home, in downtown Aurora, will house up to 15 struggling veterans and is expected to open this fall. | Michele du Vair~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 7, 2012 2:26PM

Jeff Gilbert is touting Friday’s grand opening at 469 N. Lake Street as an incredible group effort.

“It is not mine,” he told me firmly. “It is the city of Aurora’s.”

For the most part, the executive director of Hope for Tomorrow is right. His organization’s new residential facility for homeless veterans wouldn’t be opening its doors Friday morning without the blood, sweat and tears — not to mention dollar donations — of many local organizations.

But the vision started with Gilbert himself. Hope for Tomorrow — which he started 14 years ago — has already built five residential homes for those with drug and alcohol addictions in the Fox Valley. But Gilbert saw a “void not being met” as veterans returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan struggling to integrate back into society.

His desire to fill that need kicked into overdrive a couple years ago while doing a research paper for his doctorate that made him realize just how bad the problem was with returning veterans. “The numbers were staggering,” he said of those battling addictions, mental illness and post traumatic stress disorder. “It tore at me to do something.”

That “something” turned out to be the former “Opportunity House” on Lake Street that, for almost four decades, served as a half-way house for Community Counseling Services and Gateway. Hope for Tomorrow purchased the building in 2010 with a grant from VASH — the Lottery game to benefit veterans — but soon realized this old house needed major renovations that included plumbing, electrical, windows, heating and air conditioning.

And that, says Gilbert, is where the community kicked into overdrive. With support from the city itself, HUD, Waubonsee Community College, local unions, community and veteran groups, as well as foundations and private donors, “the house is now like new” at a cost close to $375,000.

“There was such a need here, and everyone responded,” he said. “It was unbelievable how this community came together.”

Gilbert had hoped the grand opening could happen on Veterans Day, but “I’ll settle for Pearl Harbor Day,” he said of Friday’s national patriotic observance. After the ribbon-cutting ceremony, which begins at 11 a.m., the seven-bedroom house will be home to 16 veterans from a long waiting list who are struggling with substance abuse and mental health issues that can include anxiety, bipolar disorder and PTSD. In addition to a roof over their heads and three square meals, the program will provide the support they need to get to the root cause of those problems.

Iraq and Afghanistan are unique from other wars fought by Americans, noted Gilbert, who is not a veteran himself but comes from a long line of soldiers and Marines. The enemy in the Mideast was not only a more silent foe that created hypervigilance in those returning, but many vets saw multiple tours of duty that never gave them a chance to deal with myriad problems like PTSD as they arose.

“A lot of pain is covered by loyalty to country to comrades and to the community,” Gilbert said. “Many of these veterans are addicted to opiates, including heroin, because these psychoactive substances help them try to forget.”

Of course, a house built by a community must also be supported by the community. The men are charged only $22 a day, although no one will be turned down because they can’t pay. And that means donations are needed to keep things going. (To help, go to WWW.hopefortomorrownet/donate.)

The fact this program works can be seen in those who have managed to turn their lives around, including the new house manager for this veterans home. While he asked that his name not be used “because of stigmas that still exist,” the former alcoholic and reservist in the Army National Guard is not only going to be in charge of the facility, he’s a full-time student, just a semester shy of a degree in psychology from Aurora University. And he credits this impressive turnaround to Hope for Tomorrow.

“It offers structure to the men and holds them accountable,” he said. “It’s amazing to see how they enter and how they leave ... it’s like night and day.”

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