Woman finds second career providing homes to disabled US vets

Vicki Thomas put her 35 years of experience to work, raising millions of dollars for Purple Heart Homes, which provides housing for wounded soldiers.

Gary Cameron/Reuters/File
A child looks at the prosthetic legs of US military veterans who lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan during a Memorial Day parade in Binghamton, N.Y. in 2012.The work of Vicki Thomas at Purple Heart Homes, which helps disabled veterans find housing, has won her a $100,000 Purpose Prize, given annually to a baby boomer making a positive social impact.

Vicki Thomas was at an age where many people look forward to retirement. She had enjoyed a successful career in public relations and marketing, including stints at a financial services trade group, a major television network, and running her own Connecticut-based marketing company.

But Ms. Thomas flipped on the television one day in 2009 and saw something that launched her on to a new career at age 64.

It was a CNN feature about two combat-wounded veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who had started a nonprofit organization to provide housing for wounded soldiers.

Dale Beatty and John Gallina were injured when their Humvee hit two antitank mines in November 2004. Mr. Beatty was left as a double amputee while Mr. Gallina sustained back and head injuries.

Thomas was riveted by their story, and before she knew it, she was on the phone cold-calling them to volunteer her services.

Thomas signed on as director of communications for Purple Heart Homes, the nonprofit that Beatty and Gallina started in their hometown of Statesville, N.C. She has since put her 35 years of experience to work, raising millions of dollars for Purple Heart Homes – in cash contributions as well as donations – and helping the founders with a dramatic expansion of the programs.

Now Thomas' work is being recognized with the Purpose Prize, a unique award given annually by the Encore Careers campaign, a nonprofit that works to engage baby boomers in encore careers with a social impact.

The prize, which is in its eighth year, recognizes encore career trailblazers over age 60 who have demonstrated creative and effective work tackling social problems. Thomas and another winner will receive cash prizes of $100,000, and five others will be awarded $25,000.

This year's Purpose Prize winners also include a veteran who organized volunteers to teach disabled vets to combat stress through fly-fishing; a cancer survivor who founded an education and support organization for Latino patients; an immigrant who advocates for the rights of domestic workers; a social activist who founded a support organization for families of prisoners; a public health expert fighting to eradicate an infectious parasite carried by river snails that afflicts people in West Africa; and a former parish pastor who created a religious refuge for the homeless on the streets of Philadelphia. (More about all of this year's winners can be found at www.encore.org/prize)

Thomas grew up in a small, rural Wisconsin community during the Vietnam War. In an interview, she tearfully recalled high school assemblies where the principal regularly announced the names of former students who had been killed in action.

"It made such an impression on me – to see an All-Star basketball player come home in a flag-draped coffin and to see the families, my neighbors, weeping," she said.

During the course of her career, Thomas had worked in marketing and communications for the Credit Union National Association, and at the American Broadcasting Co. She was running her own marketing company in Weston, Conn., when she learned about Purple Heart Homes.

"I was doing well, but felt a need to go back to what drives me, something was missing," Thomas said. "9/11 happened and changed our nation. And we were in another war. Was it a good war, the right decision? I didn't agree. But when I saw Dale on television without his legs, I just wanted to help them."

Purple Heart Homes focuses on a problem where the need is great – 3.2 million veterans have service-related disabilities, about 14 percent of the total, according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs. Many face challenges with homes that lack accessibility features such as wheelchair ramps or stair lifts, and many do not have the money to make the necessary changes.

Thomas drew on her experience working with credit unions to start a program that leverages donations of foreclosed homes to provide affordable home ownership for young veterans. Banks and cities donate the homes, and Purple Heart raises money to do renovations and provides financial counseling to veterans who may have spotty credit scores.

She found a credit union – Peach State Federal Credit Union in Georgia – to issue special 15-year mortgages worth 50 percent of the home's appraised value. The program is structured so that the borrower can own the home free and clear after 15 years. She also restructured another Purple Heart Homes initiative that funds home modifications for older veterans who do not qualify for assistance programs.

She has overseen an expansion of the budget from less than $100,000 to $3.2 million this year and a projected $6 million next year, which should allow Purple Heart homes to increase the number of homes it completes, currently around 40 annually. Fundraising also has allowed her to draw a small salary.

Thomas is 67 now, and showing no signs of slowing down. "It's an honor to know I'm making a difference," she said.

• The author is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

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