A new resource for veterans in Middletown hopes to remove all of the barriers that can sometimes get in the way of veterans transitioning smoothly to life in the civilian world.

Victory Village sits on what was once a 5-acre peach farm on Port Penn Road. The 8-bedroom, 5-bathroom mansion on the property provides transitional housing to homeless veterans looking for a fresh start. At capacity, it will house 24 male veterans, who can stay up to two years, 8 female veterans and provide 4 emergency beds. But Victory Village goes beyond simply providing a roof over someone's head.

"We're creating an environment here that supports people being motivated," said Callazzo, who's the executive director of the National Veterans Assistance Coalition, the nonprofit behind Victory Village.

Callazzo wants Victory Village to be a one-stop shop for all veteran-related resources. His goal is to eliminate the frustrating runaround vets often experience after leaving the service by connecting them directly to the organizations and services they need, on-site.

"What we need is more collaboration and less competition. All the [veteran] organizations that I'm talking about are doing great things, but they're silos. And they do certain things and not everybody knows what that particular silo does," Callazzo said. "And so people come here, this will become a network place, as well as an educational center as well as a resource center and that's what we're trying to create."

After two and a half years of working to get a certificate of occupancy, Callazzo is now focused on bringing in more services. But for now, Callazzo has partnered with the Delaware Dept. of Labor to bring someone to Victory Village to assess how the skills his veterans learned in the service can best be put to use in the civilian world; resumé writing, interviewing skills are taught there; a lawyer is living in the mansion to offer pro-bono legal help; a counselor comes in twice a week; the list goes on.

In the works, Callazzo wants to renovate an old barn and a ranch home in the back of the property into a PTSD rehabilitation center and a dorm for female veterans, respectively. He's also working with the Associated Builders and Contractors union to build a training center on the property, where vets can earn necessary certifications to work in the engine-repair, electrical, plumbing and heating and carpentry fields.

Funding

Victory Village received about $40,000 from the state, but that was one-time funding from the legislature.

The nonprofit also received grants from the Longwood Foundation and the Crystal Trust Foundation. However, Callazzo said the majority of that money was spent on retrofitting the centuries-old mansion to get it up to code.

There is no paid staff, including Callazzo. Volunteers from the community, he said, have stepped up to do everything from updating the kitchen to cutting the grass. That said, Callazzo stressed the importance of donations to help see the vision to completion.

A meditation path made of bricks is being built on the property. Callazzo said the path will provide a quiet place for the residents and also help fund Callazzo's vision. Each brick can be bought to honor vets or non-vets.

'I've really been down and out'

Callazzo said eight veterans are now living in the home. Marine Joe Lewis is one of them. He heard about Victory Village from a pastor at the Sunday Breakfast Mission in Wilmington, where he had been staying for the past three years.

"I've lived in cars, I've lived in vans, I've really been down and out," Lewis recounted. "Nine times out of 10 when you're homeless, people don't even see you. It's almost as if you're invisible."

In spite of statewide efforts to end veteran homelessness by the end of 2015, the Homeless Planning Council of Delaware's 2016 Point in Time count of the homeless on Jan. 27, 2016, found of the 1,070 experiencing homelessness in the state, 107 identified as military.

"For Victory Village to give a homeless veteran a place to stay and be able to go out and get a job and make themselves better, thumbs up," Lewis said.

Chores come with the stay here and there are house rules, Callazzo said. But Lewis said he likes to keep busy. Lewis works overnights at a printing press and said he's applying for a second job so he can start saving money to get a place of his own.
"There's veterans out there that went in young like myself, came back after 10, 15 years and know nothing else, but the military. And they need something. This will help," he said.

Callazzo wants Victory Village to serve as a national model, not only to end veteran homelessness, but also to give our veterans a well-deserved chance to make something of themselves.