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Hearts and Homes: A place where veterans serve veterans

Hearts and Homes for Veterans is a nonprofit organization in Lee County with the goal to end veteran homelessness.

“Well, when I originally started out, I thought I was serving them; I found out that they were serving me,” said Don Payton, the president of Hearts and Homes for Veterans.

Hearts and Homes recently purchased a 10,000-square-foot warehouse off Fowler Street in Downtown Fort Myers.

“We want to have a VSO (veteran service officer),” Payton said. “We want to have a cafeteria, a place where they can congregate — meet every day.”

Payton wants to supply veterans with their household needs. He says they don’t have what they need when they move into a new home.

“When they go in there, it’s an empty house,” Payton said. “What we do, we get furniture, household goods: pots, pans, silverware, anything to make an empty house a home.”

Not all veterans are ready to leave the temporary homes they have created for themselves, so Hearts and Homes goes to the veterans and gives them tents, stoves and appliances.

“We try to make their life a little more comfortable when they’re out in the field,” Payton said.

But even after they find a home, Payton wants to provide support from Hearts and Homes for Veterans.

“We need to work on building their self-esteem and getting them back to where they can get into the  job market and get back into what they really want to do with the rest of their life, get back on their feet,” Payton said. “That’s our ultimate goal with hearts and homes.”

Payton is not alone in his determination to end veteran homelessness in Lee County.

Kevin Boyd, the post commander at the American Legion 38 in Downtown Fort Myers, started helping veterans in 2009 when he assumed the role of post commander.

“We did our first Salute the Troops, which was to provide assistance to the veterans and their families while their loved ones were deployed,” Boyd said.

“A lot of times when they were deployed they would fall short with a bill or something. They didn’t have enough for food stamps or to get stuff. So, we would fall in there and provide from our food pantry.”

Boyd is also on the board of directors for Hearts and Homes. Boyd and the legion are a supplier of furniture for the veterans, and they are also a partner with  Hearts and Homes.

Dennis Simon is another member of Hearts and Homes’ board of directors. Simon helps the organization receive grants to provide for veterans who need assistance. He looks for federal and state grants as well as those from for-profit corporations.

“We’ve applied for grants with the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, with Walmart, with the Wawa Corporation, with Publix, Lowe’s, Home Depot and we’re also looking at federal and state grants,” Simon said. “Fortunately, I do have experience. I worked for Lee County for 30 years, getting grants and also administering those grants.”

Payton said a home  improvement store chain is about to supply a $22,000 grant to Hearts and Homes in the near future.

Simon gets a lot of fulfillment from his duties with Hearts and Homes.

“When I see the people that we’re helping and are successful, it really encourages me to do more, and it just makes you feel really good that you’re helping people succeed, especially people that have done so much for our country,” Simon said.

Simon himself is a veteran who served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. Payton served in the U.S. Marine Corps at the same time Simon was on active duty, and Boyd was in the U.S. Navy from 1976 to 2005 as a  yeoman administrator.

These truly are veterans helping veterans.

“We want veterans to run the facility because who knows more about being homeless than other homeless veterans that just got back on their feet,” Payton said.

“We want to give them part-time jobs.”

Payton keeps giving back to the community, and he says it gives back to him, too.

“If not for the generosity of this community, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” Payton said. “We just need more help to get this building up and running, so we can serve those that have served us in the past.”

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