With support—and rain—saturating the air on Saturday, Oct. 9, Perham community members eagerly volunteered to beautify the outside of local Army veteran Lucas Schmitz's new home, built as part of the Homes for Our Troops program.
A Perham native and special education teacher at Perham Public Schools, Schmitz said he was feeling grateful, overwhelmed and wishful that the attention wasn’t on him as his family received an adapted home from Homes for Our Troops. The program donates custom-built homes to injured post-9/11 veterans; 322 homes had been built nationwide as of October 2021.
Homes for Our Troops loves to introduce veterans to the communities they live in, but in this case Schmitz was already well-known and well-liked in Perham — and the people came out to show it.
“Thank you for showing up,” Schmitz shared with the volunteers on Saturday. “There are a lot of guys that have been affected by just being in the military, and I think what’s helped me the most is moving on and becoming a part of a community — not letting my service define me completely, but also it’s an important part of who I am, and it’s nice to know that people recognize that part of who I am.”
Schmitz served with the Minnesota Army National Guard as an infantryman with the Second Combined Arms Battalion of the 34th Infantry Division.
Schmitz's house, built by Hemmelgarn Builders in Perham's Turtle Bay development, is an adapted house with grab bars, automatic doors and wide doorways. It's designed to be a “forever home” for Schmitz, who will be able to move about easily and safely. He lost his right leg following an I.E.D. explosion in 2006 in Iraq, and now uses a prosthetic leg and wheelchair.
“It’s going to be great to go into this (home),” Schmitz said. The house will be receiving its finishing touches over the next several weeks.
As volunteers laid sod, mulched, and planted greenery on Saturday, other community members took turns at the microphone to share their gratitude and support for all who have served and sacrificed. Troy Hemmelgarn, owner and general manager of Hemmelgarn Builders, said many items for the Schmitz house — from windows to cabinets, roofing and siding — were generously donated.
“It’s been a great project,” Hammelgarn said. “It’s good to help out and give back to the community and the service members who got hurt in combat, and it’s just nice to be able to help and do something here.”
Homes for Our Troops community engagement coordinator Vanessa Leite said the community's support and speed were amazing.
“I think it’s such a wonderful cause...and it is just so good to give back to those who served for us,” Leite said. “You can’t say enough about everything that they do to protect us and our freedoms, and we’re just so grateful, and if you can give back to those who are hurt and injured over there, then why not? It’s all about just making sure that they’re OK.”
Ambassador Gary Frederick noted how each home and project is special, and the homes simply can’t be built fast enough.
The “heart-lifting” day — including kids testing out the grass for a football game — was a “marvel” for Perham High School senior Kiata Westhoff and retired teacher Marilyn Barry. Having both known Schmitz for a long time, they were excited to see him and his family receive the gift of a new home.
“It felt amazing because it was nice to know that there’s a lot of people out there that wanted to help give back to the community, and it felt nice to give back to someone who gave a lot to this world when he served,” Westhoff said.
The support of a close-knit, small-town community and schools is just what Schmitz and his wife, Tina, always hoped to share with their three children.
“I wanted my kids to be part of what I had growing up, which is this great experience,” Schmitz said. “I like the small-town rural. It might just be me, but I couldn’t live anywhere else, really.”
Learn more about the project, and make a donation, at hfotusa.org/Schmitz.