New Veterans Workshop and Learning Center in Bay City aims to help those who served their country

A few years ago, Mike Jamrog and Keith Markstrom were at the Stein Haus talking about the problems military veterans face when they come home. 

It’s a problem they know well. Jamrog, who retired from McLaren Bay Region, served in the U.S. Army from 1969 to 1971 with service in Vietnam. Markstrom, who retired from the Bay Medical Foundation, was in the U.S. Army from 1969 to 1972, also serving in Vietnam. 

Bay County is home to one of the highest concentrations of veterans per capita, making it a natural for the site of a Veterans Workshop & Learning Center. (Photo by Ashley Brown)Vietnam-era veterans came home to a rapidly-changing America. Some faced scorn from people protesting America’s involvement in the war. Young veterans weren’t always accepted by veterans of earlier wars. Emotional and physical injuries added to the difficulty. 

“We wanted to make sure that never happens again and one of the ways to do that is to have something for these guys coming home from the service, something for them to do, some place to go,” Jamrog recalls.

The exterior of the building hasn't changed much. Inside, though, it's easy to see the outlines of a workshop, classroom, lounge, kitchen, and office space. (Photo by Ashley Brown)While today’s veterans coming home from Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Persian Gulf aren’t likely to face jeers from antiwar activists, transitioning from military service to a civilian lifestyle always brings challenges. Veterans organizations fill some of the gaps, but they can’t do it all and aren’t right for everyone.

“The only thing you want to do when you’re getting out of the military is to come home to what you left,” Jamrog says. “You don’t realize that can never happen because you’ve changed, your friends have changed, your community has changed.”

Over the years, the building has been home to a boarding house, a gas station, a bird store, and more. (Photo courtesy of the Bay Veterans Foundation)On the back of a bar napkin, the pair sketched out their early plans for addressing the problem. They envisioned a small workshop and office space. Today, the Veterans Workshop & Learning Center – which includes a spacious workshop, classroom, and lounge – is taking shape inside a century-old building at 1009 N. Madison Ave.

 The Bay Veterans Foundation, which formed in 2015, purchased the 5,700-square-foot building in 2018. (You can read about the beginning of the project in a March 7, 2019 Route Bay City article.)

Everything in the workshop area of the center is mobile, allowing veterans to customize the space for different projects. (Photo by Ashley Brown)Over the years, the building has served as a boarding house, restaurant, gas station, and Wings & Things bird store. Now, volunteers and workers from Serenus Johnson Construction are working to transform the space again.

Area companies have donated thousands of dollars in materials and labor to the project. (Photo by Ashley Brown)Inside, framework exists for the interior walls that divide the building into a workshop, classroom, administrative area, counseling room, lounge, and small kitchen. 

“We talked about doing things that will gather people,” says Markstrom, who serves as the Bay Veterans Foundation President. “This isn’t one stop for everybody. You find your niche. If you want to start a project, fine. If you want to bring in a cabinet from home to re-finish it and take it home, fine.”

Mike Jamrog, Treasurer of the Bay Veterans Foundation, explains how the Workshop & Learning Center will help veterans of all ages. (Photo by Ashley Brown)Another goal is to introduce veterans to new skills. Inside the workshop, they can try their hand at using different equipment. When they find something they like, the Foundation is ready to guide them to community resources to hone their skills, Markstrom says.

Inside the classroom, the center can host motivational or informational speakers. Markstrom says they’ve already heard from U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs representatives interested in explaining veterans benefits.

The building sits near a train depot that now houses the Bay Area Community Foundation. This 1907 postcard shows a view of the depot from the building, which was a boarding house. (Photo courtesy of the Bay Veterans Foundation.)The lounge area will be heavily insulated, to reduce noise from the workshop and outdoors. The goal is to give veterans a safe, quiet space to relax or socialize. Nearby, a small kitchen allows veterans to make a cup of coffee or store a lunch inside a refrigerator. The administrative offices will provide workspace for volunteers.

Outside, the Foundation plans to create a parking lot and hopes to restore the exterior to fit in with the neighborhood. They are trying to re-create the facade from a 1910 photo. In the photo, you can see the nearby Pere Marquette Depot, 1000 Adams St., which now houses the Bay Area Community Foundation.

The goal is to open the building before the end of 2021. 

They’re already hearing from different veterans organizations interested in being part of the project. That’s no surprise given the number of veterans who live in the area. Bay County is home to more than 8,000 veterans. Veterans make up 8.2% of the county population. More than 5,000 veterans, or 6.6% of the population, live in Midland County. Saginaw County is home to nearly 12,000 veterans, or 6.3% of the population.

Military veterans are at high risk for suicide. Jamrog cites the often-quoted statistics that 22 veterans kill themselves each day. 

Even before the center has opened, it's helped. Already, a veteran of the war in Iraq learned how to use a bandsaw and is making wooden tiles for the office area. (Photo by Ashley Brown)“There are some real problems and part of it is you miss that camaraderie, knowing that, yeah, we’ve been together for two years, for three years, and I know you’ve got me,” says Jamrog, Bay Veteran Foundation Treasurer. “All of the sudden, you’re on your own.”

The center could help fill the void. Markstrom says he’s heard from state-level officials interested in the plan. They like that it’s collaborative and builds connections between individual veterans as well as helping them find resources. The community will benefit from veteran-supported projects.  “We’ve researched and we can’t find anything like this,” Markstrom says.

The goal is to open the center before the end of 2021. (Photo by Ashley Brown)Even before the facility is open, it’s helping. A veteran of the war in Iraq learned how to use a bandsaw and is making wooden tiles for the office area of the building. 

That veteran isn’t alone. The in-kind contributions are numerous. DuPont Corp. donated 6,400 square feet of insulation. Lawrence Smith Door & Window donated four steel-encased windows worth about $24,000. Alro Steel gave the veterans an 80% discount on steel headers and support posts. The Duro-Last Company donated enough materials for a 5,700-square-foot roof. 

Looking ahead, Home Depot of Bay City has asked for a list of items still needed. The Saginaw Bay Sailing Association offered scholarships to teach veterans how to sail. Others have reached out offering projects for veterans. Grant applications have been filed throughout the area.

Individual donors also have stepped up. A local veteran and his family agreed to donate landscaping materials. A Delta College CAD and CNC instructor asked the foundation for a project for one of his students. Another veteran is creating a website and handling social media.

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) awarded a grant to pay for parking lot asphalt.

Jamrog and Markstrom both appreciate seeing the community come together to support veterans. 

“Thank God we don’t have the mentality of, ‘Oh, you’re home? Go home, take the uniform off and shut up. Nobody wants to hear about it,’ “ Jamrog says. Instead, this facility is physical proof that people in this community appreciate the sacrifices and want to help veterans assimilate.

 
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