BURRILLVILLE – A project to build a local Korean War veteran a new home began this week, with electric service set up to power tools for the crowds of volunteer contractors soon to arrive from across town and beyond.
It’s an effort to help a well-deserving 83-year-old, who organizers say is in urgent need of better living conditions.
Jim Collins of the Burrillville-based nonprofit organization New Englanders Helping Our Veterans said that from the first moment he visited Paul Tellier’s home, he knew he had to help.
“He’s a proud, old veteran who deserves better than what he’s living in,” Collins said. “I said ‘you can’t live like this.’ He’s the nicest guy.”
Collins and his wife Belinda Collins have led an effort to remedy the situation that’s been so successful, it’s attracted national attention.
In addition to an online campaign that raised more than $16,000, local companies have stepped up to donate time and materials for a planned 3-bedroom ranch with a 2-stall garage. Many volunteers, they say, came to the project thanks to the involvement of Kevin Stockwell, a teacher at Burrillville High School, who thought helping Tellier might be a good experience for the school’s construction students.
Now, former students going back some 20 years have stepped forward, and Stockwell has been named project manager. Various contractors will contribute solar panels and radiant flooring, and handicap-equip the house.
Home Depot will donate the flooring, and other companies have stepped forward to contribute a new driveway and roof.
Sen. Jessica de la Cruz helped the organization to find a disposal and knockdown company – an expensive element of the project because Tellier’s current house was built in the 1765, and is filled with lead and asbestos.
“I’m very proud of the community of Burrillville,” Jim Collins said.
National Grid has said the company will donate the proceeds from their one big fundraiser this year to Tellier’s cause.
The first of many volunteers, Dave Gince of DG Electric, showed up this week to set up power to the site, while National Grid dropped a temporary pole for the work.
During the transition, Tellier will live in either a trailer or a mobile home, which were also donated.
The situation, the Collins say, is dire, and the work can’t get done soon enough. Tellier’s home has no running water and the roof is caving in. It was also recently condemned.
“It’s like a bomb went off in there,” said Belinda. “He lives in the only room that’s not caving in. It’s in tough shape.”
“I wouldn’t let my dog live there,” said Jim.
NEHOV is working with Operation Stand Down to handle the legal process, and the hazmat team is expected to arrive within the next week.
“As soon as that’s done we’re ready to start from the ground up and go fast,” said Jim, noting they aim to have Tellier in the new house by the end of September.
The structure, they admit, will be more than what Tellier wants or needs, but there are plans in place for its future: when the veteran dies, it will be passed on to another local veteran.
“He’s kind of giving the property to the veterans – his brothers,” said Jim.
It’s the largest project that NEHOV, an organization started by the Collins in 2016 with the mission of helping local vets, has ever been involved in. But they note that Tellier is exactly the type of person they hope to help.
“When I started the organization, it was to help the guys that fall between the cracks,” said Jim, noting that most of their work involves helping veterans to pay bills, or with smaller projects such as finding furniture for someone who has recently secured an apartment voucher. Jim himself is a Vietnam vet.
“I’ve lost a lot of good friends,” he said, pointing to the high rates of PTSD, and one person he knew who committed suicide.
“It bothered me all my life,” said Jim. “When I retired from my regular civilian work, this is something I wanted to do to give back to my brothers.”
NEHOV is still working to secure a general contractor for the Burrillville-based project, and is still seeking materials like concrete, and a way to furnish the home after it’s complete.
“We’re still waiting for answers back from a couple different lumberyards,” Jim said.
They’re also planning fundraisers including a Battle of the Bands to take place on Sunday, June 9 at Hill’s Tavern in Harmony.
On Saturday, June 1, the Patriots Riders will hold a Poker Run and Pig Roast starting and ending at St. Joseph’s Veteran Association in Woonsocket. The cost is $20 for riders or $10 for passengers, and registration will be held from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.
At Burrillville High School, a mattress fundraiser will be held on May 11 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Levy Ice Rink, with a portion of the proceeds to go to the project.
In all, the Collins hope to raise $75,000.
“I really do believe we’ll get it done,” said Belinda. “When there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Kasim Yarn, the director of the Rhode Island Office of Veterans Affairs, said his office has been watching the project closely to see how they can help.
“Everybody wants to make this happen,” Yarn said.
Donations for the project can be made by mailing a check to New Englanders Helping Our Veterans, with “Paul Tellier” in the memo line, to NEHOV, 1515 Douglas Pike Burrillville, R.I. 02830. NEHOV can be reached at 401-649-2548.
No matter how much is ultimately raised, the Collins say they’re grateful for the compassion the community has shown.
“It restores your faith in humanity,” said Belinda.
“It’s a shame no one helped him sooner,” said Jim.
Editor’s note: An original version of this story misstated the year when the house was built. We apologize for the error.