BURRILLVILLE – The organization at the center of a charitable effort to help an elderly veteran in Burrillville has stopped the project because of a disagreement over what would become of the man’s property after his death.
New Englanders Helping Our Veterans, a nonprofit that first began filing annual reports with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office in 2015, has announced that the community effort to build a new home for Korean War veteran Paul Tellier is no longer moving forward.
“Mr. Tellier was found living in a building that was structurally unsound, had no hot water, bathroom or heat,” noted a release on the decision. “It had collapsed in many sections and the one room he resides in is dangerously close to collapsing also.”
Efforts to help Tellier, an 83-year-old who reportedly has no family in the area, began in April, and included an online campaign that raised more than $16,000 and four town meetings to bring together community support. The organization planned to demolish Tellier’s current house, which is unsafe and collapsing, and replace it with a new house. Time and materials had been also been donated to the project by a number of local businesses, with Gilbane Building Company signing on as the general contractor.
Once Tellier died, NEHOV representatives said that house would be passed on to another veteran in need.
But according to NEHOV in a release dated August 21, “Tellier is no longer willing to proceed with the project. Recently, Mr. Tellier appointed a power of attorney who has advised that Mr. Tellier has now chosen to remain on the property, as is.”
It’s an assertion that has been disputed by the attorney who offered to take on the elderly veteran’s case pro bono.
“Mr. Tellier would still love the help of having his home rebuilt without having to sign over his land to NEHOV,” said Erin Lewis, a Johnston-based attorney who said she heard of the situation through a friend of Tellier’s, and volunteered to look at the deed. “His Power of Attorney did not stop this transaction, as Mr. Tellier is competent, and made up his own mind after he heard all of the information.”
“This was supposed to be an organization that was simply helping an elderly man rebuild his home,” she said.
According to Lewis, NEHOV representatives said that they would have to build a duplex on the property to generate more income. Further, she says that Jim Collins of NEHOV said there was a possibility that more homes would have to go up on the property.
“There are a lot a legal ramifications to transferring land and retaining a life tenancy that could occur in the future,” said Lewis. “I simply told him what a life tenant was responsible for, and the possible issues that could go wrong should NEHOV not pay the taxes or complete the project.”
“Mr. Tellier simply chose to keep his land,” she said.
NEHOV, however, has questioned if the decision was in Tellier’s best interest.
“We truly hope that Tellier’s representative has properly advised and consulted him on the decision,” the three-page release noted. “Now, every time it rains or a strong wind blows, we think of Mr. Tellier, sitting in that room with the ceiling that’s falling and the holes in the roof and walls.”
“Despite the disappointing outcome, NEHOV’s mission will go on. We will use this experience to motivate our future efforts,” the release noted.
Collins told NRI NOW that his organization was considering building a duplex – to help pay for ongoing expenses, such as taxes on the property.
“He lives off a $500 a month social security check,” Collins said. “That’s probably the reason his house got as bad as it did. He didn’t have money to fix it.”
Asked why his organization couldn’t either help Tellier in a more limited way, or build the home and let him keep it, Collins pointed out that many people donated with the understanding that the house would go to another veteran on Tellier’s passing.
“We did have a lot of people who were volunteering because it would be going to another veteran,” Collins said. “Everybody knew right from the start, we were giving Paul a lifetime stay, and then another veteran would move into the property that we built for him.”
Collins said his organization has sent letters out to all those who donated asking what they want to do with the money, giving them the option to give it to Tellier, or let NEHOV use it to help another veteran.
“Everyone I’ve talked to so far is upset,” he said. “A lot of them want to just donate it for our veterans that are in need.”
Collins noted that he may organize another town meeting to discuss Tellier’s plight..
“Maybe she could start something, and we would be glad to donate to her, but if nobody’s going to start something, I don’t know what to tell people,” he said of attorney Lewis. “I don’t think there’s any organizations out there that can just build a house for someone.”
“I hope that he made the right decision,” he added. “This house could fall in on him anytime.”
Collins noted that Tellier has yet to move into a trailer that was set up on the property for his safety several months ago. At this point, he said, VA and elderly affairs may have to take over.
“I don’t really know what decisions are going to be made from this,” he said.
Collins also addressed questions about a recent article in the Telegram and Gazette. At the time of publishing, the author states that Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey’s office was reviewing complaints filed against NEHOV in 2017.
The article notes that NEHOV donated $19,962 to veterans in 2017, according to IRS filings, and paid more than seven times that amount — $149,558 — to fundraising organization All-Pro Productions in fees.
Issues with the AG’s office in Massachusetts related to failing to file documents and disclose details of a campaign on behalf of NEHOV, according to reports.
Belinda Collins of NEHOV told NRI NOW that the missing paperwork has been filed, and the complaint resolved. A spokesman for the AG’s office said he believed there were still issues outstanding, but said he would need a public records request to confirm any information.
NRI NOW has submitted a request for the complaints but has not yet received a response.
Jim Collins noted that All Pro – a fundraising agency that solicits money on NEHOV’s behalf – has no involvement with Operation Ironclad.
“When people send in a donation to us, it goes into a separate bank account,” said Collins. “Any donation was reported and it’s in its own little account. If anyone wants their money back, it’s theirs to take.”
He also defended the fundraising organization.
“Without them we wouldn’t be able to generate the money we need to pay people’s electric bills and other things,” Collins said. “As far as I’m concerned they do a good job.”
He noted that Tellier’s situation will be an expensive and complicated project for anyone who takes it on because lead and asbestos have been found in the current house, and a Hazmat team is needed for demolition.
“It’s a big piece of property that needs maintenance, so it has to be someone that’s willing to take care of all that,” he said.
He noted that more homes may have been built on the property after Tellier’s passing.
Regardless of the outcome, Collins, a Burrillville resident, said his mission to help veterans in need will continue.
“We have too many other people that we have to get out there and help,” he said. “There’s always going to be veterans in need. I’m on my way to another mission now.”
As for Tellier, he added, “I’ll still stop by and bring him dinners.”
Editor’s note: Publisher Sandy Seoane briefly worked for All Pro Productions in 1994 and 1995. She encountered the company again in 2014 as a reporter for The Valley Breeze in a story that can be found here.