CHICOPEE >> After two years of crashing on a lumpy couch at a friend's house, disabled Marine veteran Ferris Shelton finally has a home of his own.
"It is a slice of heaven," he told Chicopee Mayor Richard J. Kos, who shook his hand and welcomed him to the city. "I'm sleeping on a mattress."
It isn't only having a real bed, a bathroom, a kitchen and a spot to teach himself how to play the keyboard that is special. Moving into the new Soldier On complex at the old Chapin School is giving Shelton and other down-on-their-luck veterans a chance to get back on their feet.
Soldier On recently held an open house to show off the nearly 120-year-old building that has been converted from a vacant elementary school to a 43-apartment home for homeless veterans.
Construction was completed in late summer and the first 16 men have moved in over the past two weeks.
Each apartment is a little different and Shelton had his choice of units. He selected a corner apartment because he figured he could open the windows and get a cross breeze. His is one of the apartments that still has one of the original blackboards hanging on the wall.
Life wasn't always so hard for Shelton. He served active duty in the U.S. Marine Corps for three years and after being honorably discharged he married, had children and worked at Milton Bradley for 16 years. But after a divorce, his life went into a tailspin.
"I lost my way with drinking and debauchery," he said.
Eventually he found Soldier On, which started him on a road to recovery. He attends Alcohol Anonymous meetings, reads a lot and is teaching himself to play piano. Once he settles in more, Shelton said he hopes to start looking for a job and also talked to Kos about volunteer opportunities with veterans groups.
"It's tough when you get shot at and then you have to live your life," he said, declining to give many details about his military service. "Now I have to be persistent and consistent with my recovery."
Even in the short period of time he said he has found that the residents are becoming friends and supporting each other.
"We have one thing in common. We took an oath to protect the country and not everyone did that," he said.
The $7.3 million rehabilitation was done in a partnership with O'Connell Development Group of Holyoke and was funded with a variety of different sources including affordable housing grants and historic tax credits and City of Chicopee contributions. Western Builders renovated the building, said Bruce Buckley, chief financial officer for Soldier On.
"It was a great partnership. It was a pleasure to work with everyone," he said.
The complex is set up as a housing cooperative. The residents must be veterans and earn no more than the federal low-income requirements of about $28,000 a year. Each first pays $2,500 for a share in the cooperative, and then pays a monthly rent that is 30 percent of their income. Every tenant is different, some have veterans' benefits, others have social security and some work, he said.
The most any resident pays is $883 a month, but rarely does a veteran pay the full amount. Some residents pay as little as $50 a month, Buckley said.
While the $2,500 seems like an insurmountable amount for the veterans, who were either homeless or at risk of being homeless, local banks and other organizations have donated money to Soldier On, to be gifted to anyone who cannot come up with the money to pay the initial fee, Buckley said.
To manage the building, residents and Soldier On employees form a board, similar to a condominium association. They oversee finances and set rules for the tenants, he said.
Soldier On also continues to provide services to tenants including counseling, transportation, job help and anything else they may need. Counselors will come to Chapin Housing to meet residents in their own homes and there are also a few small offices in the building where they can talk, Buckley said.
"We bring the services to them," he said.
Currently about 55 people have applied for the 43 apartments. Soldier On officials are still sorting through the applications to select the remaining residents of the Chapin project.
Those who are not selected may have a chance to be placed in Agawam, since Soldier On is renovating the former Western Massachusetts Regional Police Academy and building 52 apartments there.
Kos toured the old school and said he was mayor and School Committee chairman when the board made the difficult decision to close Chapin in 2003 as an elementary school because of budget cuts. For two years it was used as an alternative school before it was shuttered in 2005.
"This is a positive use of a former school," he said, thanking the City Council, local veterans agencies and department heads for their support for the project.
Among those who toured the school were a number of former teachers and the retired principal John Coach and his wife, Joanne Coach, who worked as vice principal at nearby Gen. John Stefanik School.
"I can't believe how bright it is. We did not realize how dark it was at the time," said Donna Dinsbach Valliere , who taught kindergarten at Chapin.
She and Linda Low, also a kindergarten teacher, pointed out the hallway in the basement saying that is where children had physical education classes.
"What a great idea for veterans. What would we do without veterans?" Lowe said.
As a condition of receiving historic tax credits, some of the school features had to remain, including the wide hallways. Some apartments also have the original blackboards, Casey DiCicco, communications director for Soldier On, said.
Each unit, which measures about 500 square feet, has a bedroom, a bathroom and a living area and kitchenette complete with stovetop and microwave oven. Each is furnished with a new double bed, a recliner, a dresser and small table with two chairs, she said.
James Baer, a case manager at Soldier On, is one of the veterans who has applied for an apartment at Chapin. Baer, who currently rents an apartment in Haydenville, said he was living in a homeless shelter in Worcester and was such a desperate alcoholic that he drank mouthwash when he couldn't buy liquor.
A veterans' shelter in Worcester connected him with Soldier On in 2007 and it saved him. Baer said he eventually found a job with the organization.
Baer said he joined the U.S. Marine Corps as a teenager in 1975 and spent four years in active duty.
"I got out of the military at 21— I was an alcoholic at that time," he said.
For most of his 20s Baer said he went through a cycle of being hired and losing jobs because he was drinking. By the time he reached 30 he stopped drinking, married and started a family. When he divorced at the age of 42 he started drinking again and ended up homeless and desperate.
Soldier On helped him out of the cycle. Baer said he relapsed a few times but staff offered him a helping hand to get back on track. He has not had a drink since February 2010 and the former metal worker also found a new career with the organization.
He was first hired as an intake counselor and then studied at Westfield State University to become certified as a substance abuse counselor. At 58, Baer said he is now enrolled at Holyoke Community College and eventually hopes to earn his bachelor's degree in social work.
Not all Soldier On clients have substance abuse problems. Some suffer from post-traumatic stress and others have other problems which make it difficult for them to function without help, he said.
Soldier On does like to have a staff member or two living in Chapin School to help support their fellow veterans in case someone does need help. Baer said he meets the income guidelines and other qualifications so he hopes his application is selected.
"I like working with the veterans. They are in the same position I was and I can see they are making the same mistakes I did," he said.