Positive edition

Motorcycle club works to help homeless veterans

Garry Owen House shares success stories; Club helps veterans any way it can
By Daniel Dunkle | May 05, 2017
Photo by: Daniel Dunkle Michael Gomez, 23, is a veteran of the Army. After he was homeless and living in his minivan in the brutal winter weather, he was given a chance to stay at the Garry Owen House, a shelter specifically for veterans.

Searsmont — Michael Gomez is like any 23-year-old. He has dreams of one day working in computer animation for video games or movies. He plans to go back to school.

He also happens to be a homeless Army veteran.

"I didn't expect myself to go this low -- homeless, almost foodless, almost moneyless," he said.

He found himself living in his minivan in the Pizza Hut parking lot in Belfast when a February blizzard hit and had to leave the vehicle running throughout the day and night.

"If it was off for a couple of seconds, it was really cold," he said.

When we talked to him in late March, however, he was warm and safe, looking at job and apartment prospects.

He found a room, a bed and food at the Garry Owen House in Searsmont. The Garry Owen House is a nonprofit that helps homeless veterans. Members of the Garry Owen Motorcycle Club from both Waldo and Knox counties helped raise the money for this six-bed homeless shelter and worked to turn the once-dilapidated home into a liveable dwelling in a matter of just 12 days. The house is at 163 Augusta Road (Route 3) at the former "Apple Squeeze" right next to the Olde Mill Diner.

Knox County Chapter Treasurer Gene Kelly said the mission of the club and the house is to help local veterans who are not getting the help they need.

"We don't want them on the street, we don't want them out in the weather getting cold," he said.

Gomez served for three years right out of high school as a specialist in a field artillery unit. He was not deployed during that time, but spent much of it training. It gave him an opportunity to work with military people from India and Britain. He said he suffered some hearing loss from the loud guns.

After receiving his honorable discharge, he tried going back to school, but found it a difficult transition. He had never lived on his own before without the structure of either the military or home life.

"I really don't have a lot of friends," he said.

The only supportive family member he had on the East Coast was his mother, and she died in January after a 13-year battle with cancer.

He traveled from Idaho to Maryland to Maine and ended up homeless for several months.

He spent about a month at the Garry Owen House, which provides shelter during both the day and the night, unlike many shelters. It also provides a kitchen stocked with food the veterans can prepare for themselves.

"I knew that there were veteran communities out there that would support other veterans, but I didn't realize it would be like this -- this helpful, this rewarding," Gomez said. "They're all good people, and I'm glad they were there to help me."

"Veterans have been falling through the cracks. Everyone forgets about them, and it's not right," said Kelly. "These are the people that are the real foundation of America."

Members of the club stress that this is not a hand-out but a hand up. Those living in the house are expected to work toward the goal of finding housing and employment.

In the short time since the house opened in December, it has already had some success stories.

The club reported in March that veteran Steve Cowles came to the Garry Owen House after living in a boatyard in Bangor. After only a few weeks of help and support at the house, he was able to secure a job and apartment in Stonington.

The motorcycle club's entire mission is to help veterans. It has provided assistance with heat for veterans in Waterville, Winslow, Hallowell and Warren. It helped weatherize the home of Iwo Jima veteran Leroy Peasley of Rockland.

Club members went to Skowhegan to provide a portable shower for a Korean War veteran in need.

"The thank-you we got from him -- that makes what we do worth it," Kelly said. "The look in his eyes when we were done doing such a small thing, really."

The club holds events including softball games, auctions and rides to raise money for the cause. It also sells clothes and gear. The members, who must be veterans or immediate family members of veterans, pay dues to the club.

When it came to starting up the house, members found that motorcycle clubs are not allowed to be nonprofits under federal guidelines. Instead, they had to form a separate nonprofit for Garry Owen House. The club is a major sponsor of the house.

The current shelter is only one step toward the larger goal. Eventually, the club plans to build a new 12-bed facility on seven acres of land off routes 3 and 220 in Montville. It plans raise the money independently of state and federal dollars, so it will be able to help all veterans, even those who might not meet state or federal guidelines for help.

"It's not only to put a roof over their head, but to help them navigate Togus benefits," said Knox County Chapter President Brent Keller. "People see this paperwork, they don't know where to begin. It's overwhelming. Part of our mission is to have advocates from VA help them with the paperwork."

The club also plans to seek grants in the future to fund its mission of helping veterans.

It is noted, during the interview with members of the club, that one does not usually associate motorcycle clubs with paperwork. "If you join a motorcycle club to ride a motorcycle, you're crazy," said one member. "Might be even more so for us."

"It's a really good feeling knowing that you're helping out your fellow brother, a veteran who put his life on the line for his country, for our freedoms, that some people seem to forget," Kelly said.

For more information, visit garryowenmc.com, or garryowenhouse.org.

Daniel Dunkle can be reached at ddunkle@villagesoup.com or 594-4401 ext. 122. Follow him on Twitter @DanDunkle.

The Garry Owen House on Route 3 provides shelter, warmth and food for homeless veterans. Fundraising has started for a larger facility. (Photo by: Daniel Dunkle)
Members of the Knox and Waldo County Chapters of the Garry Owen Motorcycle Club are pictured. The club's mission is to help veterans. (Courtesy of: Garry Owen MC)
Members of the Knox County Chapter of the Garry Owen MC meet in Union. Pictured are, from left, Neil Pollis, Clint Dodge, President Brent Keller, Jerry Johnson, Toby Dodge and Treasurer Gene Kelly. (Photo by: Daniel Dunkle)
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