In what the president calls a “good symbiotic relationship,” Mount Wachusett Community College, in Massachusetts, has leased 10 acres, at no charge, to a nonprofit organization constructing the Northeast Veteran Training & Rehabilitation Center  on its campus.
The $7 million complex, including 20 housing units (10 duplexes) and a rehabilitation facility, is slated to open in January 2010. The concept behind the center is that veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, amputations, burns, or (moderate) traumatic brain injuries will live with their families on campus while undergoing therapy, taking advantage of the community college’s facilities, and enrolling, for free, in academic programs. Students in Mount Wachusett’s nursing and allied health programs will serve as interns at the veterans' center.
“My sense is we have not even tapped the tip of the iceberg in terms of the creativity of the relationship that we can develop here,” said Daniel M. Asquino, president of Mount Wachusett. The college received permission from state lawmakers in August to lease the land for 30 years (with options for two 10-year extensions) to Veteran Homestead, Inc. , a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that runs facilities in a number of states (including a working organic farm for homeless veterans in New Hampshire and a home for elderly veterans in Massachusetts). A ground-breaking ceremony  for the privately-funded training and rehabilitation facility was held late last month.
“What we’re trying to do is set this up as a footprint and then go to other colleges,” said Leslie Lightfoot, Veteran Homestead’s CEO and founder. “Pieces of this are being done in lots of places. Some people do rehab and some schools provide education. There are bits and pieces but no one has ever pulled it together, and it just seemed like the logical thing to do.”
Lightfoot said the nonprofit has raised about $5 to $5.5 million of the $7 million total needed, largely through grants and donations of in-kind services. Once it opens, veterans will be accepted to live at the center -- where their housing, education and rehabilitation costs will be covered -- based on an application process. They won’t be required to attend Mount Wachusett classes, but, Lightfoot said, “They certainly will be encouraged and counseled toward going to school. My understanding is that about 28 percent of our current military force are not high school graduates.” (On that note, the National Priorities Project estimated  earlier this year that in 2007, only 70.7 percent of active duty Army recruits had a regular high school diploma; Army officials quoted in a corresponding Washington Post article  put the figure at 79.1 percent).
“You have so much responsibility in the military that when you get out, you instantly think you’re going to get the corner office with the window. And that just doesn’t happen," said Lightfoot, a former Army medic.
Lightfoot said she expects most veterans will reside at the center for two years, which matches the length of a typical community college program.