Habitat Bay County builds veterans up by tearing homes down to the studs and fixing them

When Brian Krause came on board as executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Bay County two years ago, he began to see a sad, recurring theme in the homes of veterans. He quickly committed to providing assistance and solving the problem.

Krause formed Operation We Care Veteran Build Project, which targets veterans and their spouses who cannot afford critical home repairs. Now, thanks to the Habitat program, veterans who gave years of service to our nation are getting much needed home repairs in return.

“I think it was in my first few months at Habitat that I started working for a local veteran. I got into his house and saw all that needed to be done. I started to realize how little money they (veterans) have to work with, how they are treated, and how much need there is,” Krause says. “I thought, let’s put this program together.”

“Operation We Care” projects can range from small to complicated and require different amounts of labor and funding.

“Last year, they were mostly major repairs, like roofs. We did a complete overhaul of a bathroom right down to the studs, plumbing under the crawlspace, paint, and new doors for a man who served as a firefighter in Bay County after being in the Air Force. He lives in Crump now and still helps with the fire department.”

Another recipient, Marsha Lewandowski, widow of former Air Force fueler Frank Lewandowski, couldn’t be more thankful for the repairs done on her home. Frank passed away from cancer in 2019, at which time the front porch was in major disrepair and the roof needed updating. “Financially, there was no way we could do it ourselves,” his wife says.

In 2020, Krause came in with builders to see what they could do to create a better living situation. “They checked the basement, the roof, everything. To my surprise, BZAK came in and added basement windows, too. He said, ‘You aren’t going to live in a dungeon down here anymore.’ They gave me a brand new roof, all the awnings, and painted my shutters. It’s so nice to have something special,” says Marsha.

After the work was done, this veteran had a working bathroom.Krause notes that contractors such as Anthony Banaszak of BZAK Builders have been incredibly helpful in the last year, pitching in whenever assistance was needed. “BZAK did 10 or so projects with us; he worked with the veterans and went above and beyond. He was always there to help.”

In 2020, Krause and his team were able to help nine veterans and their families and had a budget of $75,000. Funding for the work came in the form of grants, donations, and sponsorships from community partners, including Consumers Energy, LiUNA Local 1098, Bay Future Inc., Bay Area Community Foundation, United Way of Bay County, Dupont, Doug and Victoria Wirt, The Nickless Family, and Spectrum.

While financial backing was available, Habitat was hardest hit by the lack of volunteerism in 2020 due to restrictions during the pandemic. Krause says, “We went from 650 volunteers in 2019 down to only 12 in 2020, because of COVID-19. Usually corporations will come out and bring a bunch of people, but, due to COVID, employees weren’t allowed to. Our expenses more than doubled last year because we had to hire contractors rather than rely on volunteer people.”

Krause is hopeful that volunteerism can return to normal in 2021 and that less money will be required because of it. “My goal is to do 10 veteran projects, but it is all about funding. We are always looking for new sponsors or contractors willing to donate their time or work at a discounted rate.”

“Operation We Care” is just one of the many undertakings that Krause managed last year. In total, 23 projects were completed, including the Neighborhood Revitalization done on 11th Street on Bay City’s East Side. This project continues into this year as Habitat for Humanity of Bay County will be assembling a modular home from General Housing in the neighborhood. 

Habitat's Brian Krause is hopeful that volunteerism returns to normal in 2021, so he can help more veterans.“It should take about a month to get it done. It’s hard to come by the volunteers and we are unsure of what to expect, so the modular home made the most sense to try. This is the first house we have built in four years in Bay County.”

In 2020, Operation We Care focused on major repairs such as roofs. Krause adds, “So in addition to the veteran houses, we are trying to help build neighborhoods back up … maybe taking on a neighborhood every year or two and helping everybody in that neighborhood.”

Past Operation We Care recipients remain grateful for the way Habitat and its volunteers have improved their lives. Marsha Lewandowski, for one, emphasizes the importance of continuing to support Habitat for Humanity, and specifically the veteran projects.

“I am so proud of [my home] now. It’s so important to keep this project going. I can’t physically get out and help, but I can encourage my family and friends to help.”  

Krause, too, sees the value in continuing efforts into the future. “We need to focus on our veterans. They do so much for us and we need to give back a little bit.”

If community members know a deserving veteran in need of critical or major repair services in Bay County or are interested in sponsorship or volunteerism, Krause encourages them to reach out by email at brian@habitatbaycounty.org or by phone at (989) 493-0240.