Local high school students learning construction at West-MEC technical school in Glendale are helping a veteran’s widow keep her home.
On Feb. 17, West-MEC students in the General Construction Technology class returned for the second time in a month to work on the Glendale home of LaGean Levar, whose husband Thomas, a US Navy veteran, died last year.
After Thomas Levar died, the city became aware of the dangerous state of disrepair inside the home. The structure was headed for condemnation, so city officials alerted retired Glendale Police Sgt. Jeff Turney.
An Air Force veteran, Turney has a long record of helping local vets. In 2019 he made national news by helping a World War II veteran drive from Glendale to Florida to reunite with family. Turney has also chaired the Glendale Chamber’s Military & Veterans Affairs Committee.
When Turney heard about LaGean’s situation, he contacted Angels on Patrol and Operation Enduring Gratitude, which went to work organizing volunteers and donated building materials for the renovation. LaGean is staying with her next door neighbors while the volunteers bring her home up to code and make it comfortable.
Operation Enduring Gratitude was founded by West-MEC construction instructor and Army veteran Charlie Ellis in 2014. Its mission is to perform home repairs and upgrades for veterans in need.
Ellis said LaGean’s house is the ninth home the group has helped renovate. It has also performed numerous smaller projects, including the installation of about 80 wheelchair ramps for veterans.
When the recent home renovation project came up, Ellis said he saw an opportunity to give his construction students real-world experience and help someone in need at the same time.
The combination of the students working alongside building professionals using donated materials “is like a three-legged stool. It’s borderline perfect,” Ellis said.
The high school students are contributing valuable labor, gaining experience and also making professional connections with the builders who are contributing their time to the project, Ellis said.
“Hopefully we get jobs out of this for our students,” he said.
Ellis added that having the students working at the site helps him recruit professionals to donate their time, since companies are on the lookout for new hires with construction workers in high demand.
West-MEC construction student Chris Lopez, of Peoria, was working on a plumbing project inside the home.
“It feels nice,” he said. “It’s rewarding to feel like you’re helping. It gives you the opportunity to work in your community.”
Turney said that having the construction students step up and be involved has enhanced the project for everybody.
“We had one young lady who didn’t know anything about plumbing,” he said, “and now she’s our plumber.”
Turney said the aim is to have one professional working with each group of volunteers on a particular project inside the home.
One of the contractors working with Lopez and the other West-MEC students was Marcus White, owner of Veteran Advisors, who was restructuring the walls of the home.
White, an 18-year Navy veteran, said his business is veteran focused, hiring veterans and offering discounted work to veterans, in addition to donating time to projects like the home renovation.
White said he was motivated to help after seeing a need for veteran services when he retired from the military. He said he is particularly passionate about helping homeless veterans, because he knows people who fell into homelessness after their service and “died on the streets.”
As a contractor, his skills can help keep veterans in their homes by helping on projects such as making houses ADA rated for disabled vets.
“I do this because I enjoy helping my community,” he said. “There wasn’t that structure and setup (for veterans) when I got out.”
Turney and Ellis said Operation Enduring Gratitude and current home renovation pulled together a lot of different people from the community, including many businesses that have donated supplies and numerous trades, from tree trimmers to electricians, donating their time.
As the West-MEC students were getting ready to enjoy hard-earned pizza after the day’s work, Jason, a technician from America’s Pride Air, which donated an air conditioner, arrived to check on some previous installation work.
“It just feels good,” he said. “It feels great to help someone out.”
Turney said that with the help of his partners, Operation Enduring Gratitude has made a “night and day” difference in the home.
“This is going to be her forever home,” he said. “We want her to have a good solid home.”
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