Painted into a corner

Paul Sweeney, a veteran photojournalist with the military, opens the kiln to check on his black light filters for flash photography he is making at the Veterans Art Center on Saturday.

Judging from the name on the building, one might think what goes on inside is centered on art.

It's called the Veterans Art Center, after all.

But what opened five years ago as a place for veterans to create art in a therapeutic way has grown to become a hub for anything veterans might need.

Help with utility bills, applying for jobs or negotiating paperwork to obtain military benefits, troubleshooting housing situations and learning Tai Chi are just a few of the other services that come with this place, which is far more than just a building housing oodles of art supplies.

This is a community.

And it's a community that has its future threatened by uncertain finances.

Founder Wendy Hoffman is asking for help paying off the building, which she obtained a personal loan to buy five years ago. A $175,000 balloon payment is due Oct. 30.

Normally, she would just dip into her own personal finances and try to plug the hole, as she's done numerous times in the past. But recent health issues and medical bills have added to her own money worries, and combined with mounting credit-card debt, she's at a point where she's asking for help. She, like the other volunteers here at the center, don't draw salaries and the grants obtained for the center are to fund costs associated with helping the veterans and building costs.

Hoffman started the nonprofit Operation Revamp in 2010, when she was elected national president of the Blue Star Mothers, a nonprofit with members who have family members serving in the military or veterans in their families. Hoffman's son was serving in the Army and she was determined to find ways for veterans who come home to deal with the burdens they carried after service, things like post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.

After seeing presentations focused on sports-related therapies for vets, she decided to establish an art-focused therapy program. She was able to get a loan for the old Sentinel Printing building at 307 S. 12th Street and bought it in 2013.

It became the Veterans Art Center. Today, it's a building housing a woodshop, a stained-glass studio, and a classroom where anyone can come and work on projects or socialize.

There's a natural sense of camaraderie among vets, members said, as they have a shared past of sorts and were all trained in similar ways, though they are careful to say you can't assume everyone is the same and they don't necessarily like the stereotypes about PTSD and other issues.

Still, Hoffman said, there's a shared acceptance they have for their situations, whatever personal nuances exist.

"We're all here because we're not all there," she said.

For Hoffman, she's most focused on reaching and healing the hidden wounds that veterans have after completing their service. Art is one way to help, but providing just a place to come and be accepted is vital for others.

In the past three years, she's had 15 veterans tell her in person or through surveys that they are alive because of this place.

"See that number?" she said. "That's the important one."

Since 2016, 182 vets have said the center helped them with housing, 382 said they were helped with increased mental health support, and 426 said they were assisted with increased health or well-being, according to surveys.

Those surveys don't reflect the other things she's done, like fostering a veteran's dog for him for more than year or letting homeless veterans stay at her home for periods of time.

"How can I not help?" she said.

A case manager at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center first brought U.S. Navy veteran Bert Buford here 4 ½ years ago, when he was struggling with housing and finding a sense of purpose.

Since then, volunteers helped Buford form his own business and design T-shirts and hats, and acquire a heat press used to adhere the designs to the fabric, which is kept on-site because it's considered a fire hazard and he can't have it at his home.

Buford isn't sure what he would do if he couldn't come here, as he does most days.

"I'd probably get a bulldozer and bulldoze the town," he said. "It would be the end of the road trip."

Hoffman has a reputation for being the glue that holds this place together, for listening, mediating and fixing. She's the one people come to, whether it's a problem with the toilet leaking or someone is hurt, and she always seems to make things better for them.

When Buford had an operation in April, Hoffman came to the hospital and checked on him.

"She's been like a second mother to me," said Buford, 65.

Some, like Buford, have been coming here for years. Others still stumble in, not quite knowing what this place is about until they're welcomed inside.

Chris Childers, a 42-year-old who served in the U.S. Marine Corps, had only been in Grand Junction a few weeks and was staying at the Rescue Mission when he walked past the center and came in the door.

"I didn't know what to think," he said. "I was a little lost."

But Childers talked with Dallas Hanson, Hoffman's son and a fellow veteran, and immediately felt better and knew he was somewhere he would get help. Getting a copy of his discharge papers was the first step, and they also let him do laundry at the center.

Only a few days after he happened upon the center, Childers had a haircut, a job interview and was greeting others who were coming to the center for the first time.

"This place gives me confidence," said Childers. "I feel like I belong here."

On Friday, U.S. Navy veteran Tim Moss, 27, and his 3-year-old daughter Brynna were hanging out while he did homework for his mechanical engineering studies at Colorado Mesa University. Moss is planning on teaching basic computer literacy classes, and said he likes bringing his daughter to a family-friendly environment where kids can be creative.

"The best part is just being able to come here and hang out with people," he said.

Gary Keenan, a 33-year-old Army National Guard veteran, was working on a vibrant pastel painting across the table from Moss. He's been coming here ever since he found the center by accident, just driving past, about 18 months ago. Now, Keenan teaches weekly painting classes to anyone who wants to learn.

"It's like a big family, in a sense," he said.

Though men make up more than 80 percent of the members who have come to the center in the past year, women veterans are welcomed and find their niche here.

U.S. Navy veteran Joetta Serio, 72, has been coming since the center opened, and kept coming over the years when she was homeless, living in a shelter and a hotel at different points.

"These people have saved me a lot of times," she said.

Dave Wadsworth, an Army veteran who has volunteered here for four years and regularly gives members rides to and from the center, said this place is about providing a community and support to those who haven't found it elsewhere.

"The rest of the population doesn't understand," he said. "This gives veterans a way to integrate back into civilian life … and we're in danger of losing it all."

The fundraiser for Operation Revamp is located online at https://www.crowdrise.com/o/en/campaign/save-the-building.

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