When a traumatic brain injury caused retired Army Cpl. Matt Burgess to end his military service in 2007, he wanted to find a way to continue helping his comrades. So he started Freedom Fidos, a nonprofit that trains shelter dogs as service animals for veterans.
By rescuing and training dogs from shelters in Macon and Columbus, Georgia, Burgess has helped 43 veterans receive Freedom Fidos companions so far.
“I was speechless and am beyond grateful.”
— Matt Burgess
Thanks to help from Wells Fargo and the Chattahoochee Valley chapter of House of Heroes, a nonprofit providing free home repairs to veterans, Freedom Fidos will receive a new ramp, roof, and kennel at Burgess’ home in Shiloh, Georgia.
“I was speechless and am beyond grateful,” said Burgess, as 30 Wells Fargo volunteers arrived at his home and worked for 11 hours Oct. 23. They pressure washed, replaced siding and his front porch screen, built a wheelchair ramp and new porch railing, cleaned the yard of more than 200 cinderblocks, cut down three trees, and did other work to pave the way for the new roof and kennel. When complete, Burgess said the new kennel will allow him to increase the number of service dogs he can house and train at once from eight to 12.
The renovations to Burgess’ house were made possible by a $100,000 grant Wells Fargo Foundation gave House of Heroes to repair the homes of 15 veterans. The grant is part of Wells Fargo’s $1 billion philanthropic commitment through its foundation over the next six years to address the nation’s housing affordability crisis that, with House of Heroes, also serves military service members, veterans, and their families.
“Housing costs are taking a toll on nearly every community, and House of Heroes shares Wells Fargo’s focus of strengthening communities by creating housing affordability solutions for veterans,” said Jeff Chavannes, military community programs manager for Wells Fargo Foundation. “It’s another example of how public-private collaboration can help veterans find safe and sustainable housing.”
‘I didn’t realize I needed the help as bad as I did’
Parazetta Howard, also a recipient of a free home repair, doesn’t have to worry anymore if her food will slide out when she opens her refrigerator, and she no longer gets winded trekking downstairs to do her laundry in the basement.
House of Heroes and Wells Fargo replaced her sloping floor earlier this month and performed the necessary electrical work to relocate her washer and dryer on the main floor.
“What they are doing for us is tremendous,” said Howard, whose husband, Matthew, a decorated Vietnam War combat veteran and Army Sgt. 1st Class, died in 1990.
“I didn’t realize I needed the help as bad as I did,” she said. “My husband loved the military and loved his soldiers. If they couldn’t get to see family over the holidays, he’d invite them to our house and we’d have them around our table. I know if he was still here, he’d be doing everything he could to bless and help others — just like Wells Fargo and House of Heroes now are doing for us.”
‘Their mission is our mission’
Susan Wood, executive director for the Chattahoochee Valley chapter of House of Heroes, said Wells Fargo and its volunteers have been a program mainstay since 2009 — donating more than 1,000 volunteer hours and $345,000 to help repair 86 homes.
“Wells Fargo has been very instrumental in our success for the past 10 years. Not only does the bank provide money — which all stays right here in the community — but its people bring heart and skill to every project.”
— Susan Wood
She said the $100,000 grant to repair 15 homes in 2019 represents more than half her House of Heroes chapter’s yearly budget.
“Wells Fargo has been very instrumental in our success for the past 10 years,” Wood said. “Not only does the bank provide money — which all stays right here in the community — but its people bring heart and skill to every project. Their volunteers are one of my best teams. When they do a project and say they are going to do something and finish it, they do, from early in the morning until late in the evening when the work is done.”
Wells Fargo District Manager Ashley Hawthorne is one of those volunteers as well as a House of Heroes board member.
She said she volunteers to embody Wells Fargo’s values, to honor the soldiers, veterans, and families she grew up with and now serves daily, and to thank her grandfather for his own military legacy.
“I’ve always been passionate about helping the veterans, and through the experience with my grandfather and his disability, I have personally experienced the struggles these people who have done so much for our country can go through,” said Hawthorne, who led the volunteer work on Burgess’ house. She has led seven other Wells Fargo volunteer projects for House of Heroes since 2009.
“I tell my team at work all the time: ‘You’re not just coming to work to do a job with Wells Fargo, but you’re here to represent us and change lives in our community. We all have the same heartbeat: putting in the work and standing behind it to support the military and our friends, neighbors, customers, and community.”
— Ashley Hawthorne
“I saw how much of a difference we could make in one day doing such minor repairs as replacing screen doors in that first project back in 2009, and knew it was something I wanted to do more of,” Hawthorne said.
“I tell my team at work all the time: ‘You’re not just coming to work to do a job with Wells Fargo, but you’re here to represent us and change lives in our community,’” Hawthorne said. “We all have the same heartbeat: putting in the work and standing behind it to support the military and our friends, neighbors, customers, and community.”
That same spirit is echoed across the state, seen in such efforts as the donations of 27 homes to military veterans in Georgia since 2012, and the 27,000 hours and more than $16 million donated in 2018 to nonprofits.
On a national level, Wells Fargo offers down payment assistance and homebuyer education to eligible low- and moderate-income military service members and veterans through the company’s NeighborhoodLIFT ® program. The company also has an initiative to hire more veterans.
“We have tens of thousands of military personnel across the state and about a dozen military bases in Georgia,” Hawthorne said. “When you look at what organizations like House of Heroes are doing and what we’re doing as a company, it’s clear: their mission is our mission.”