BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW's), the American Legions, the Vietnam Veterans of America, the Marine Corps League, and the many other communities that house so many of Western New York's finest heroes - are dying.
"Most of the Veterans Posts were created after World War II. Those buildings were made on little funding, and in many cases weren't created with accessibility in mind," said County Clerk Michael Kearns, the leader of the project.
At the time, things such as ramps, elevators, bathrooms, were not required by federal law (the Americans with Disabilities Act - ADA - was not created until 1990). In addition, many posts have not held enough funding to maintain or repair buildings over time.
"Our veterans are getting older, and the buildings are not that far behind," said Jerry Kowalski, the Commander of the F.J. Donovan Post in Cheektowaga, and the the President of the Veterans Post Restoration Fund.
Many buildings have broken down - and led many veterans to not be able to access facilities. That need inspired the Veterans Post Restoration fund - a combined effort from County Clerk Kearns, and 23 local posts, who have all expressed issues with their buildings, and in many cases, issues with members having access to facilities.
So far the fund has restored a few posts:
1. Frank L. Gierlach Post (1320), Sloan, N.Y:
“We had one veteran - who served in WWII - who couldn’t use the bathroom anymore. So when he would go to the post and he had to go to the bathroom - he literally would call his wife, get picked up, go home to go to the bathroom, and then come back. That was unacceptable," said Kearns.
That veteran is Mike Budowksi, a 96-year-old World War II veteran who lost his leg when a grenade landed in trench while defending our country in Iwo Jima, Japan. He helped found the Gierlach post when he came back from WWII nearly 75 years ago.
“I lost a limb. Here I am, no education to speak of. No profession … I realized that the only way I can salvage my life was working at the post,” said Budowski through tears.
Mike couldn't access the post - and ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began - he's been stuck at home without his veteran family.
"I miss them so much much," he said.
The Gierlach Post's bathrooms were in shambles. For many years, the post relied on the Sloan Volunteer Fire Company across the street to use their restrooms. The post's renovations were estimated at $55,000.
“It was so bad. Can you imagine a poor veteran that has to go to the bathroom - has to run across the street or run home? It was horrible horrible horrible,” said Russell Salvatore, owner of Russell's Steaks, Chops, & More, and the Salvatore's Grand Hotel.
“I couldn’t believe they had a bathroom with a door you couldn’t even get a wheelchair through. I said you know what, I have a couple of bucks, I want to make this a first class veterans bathroom," he added.
Salvatore served himself in his 20's, and was deeply saddened by the Gierlach Post and Mike Budowski's story. When he heard it - he wrote the post a check on the spot for $55,000 to cover the renovation.
“It feels different. It feels good to know that you are helping people that are helping us, its hard to explain," he said.
2. Francis J. Donovan Post (1626), Cheektowaga, N.Y.
“The building was built in 53’, and everything in there is that old. We had electric wires running up in the attic - wires running into our kitchen. Since we were running fundraisers with a pancake breakfast, spaghetti dinners - it was bad. When we had the fundraisers we had to run electrical extension cords from the bar to the kitchen, from the dining room to the kitchen, so we could use the equipment in the kitchen to cook the pancakes and make the spaghetti. It was getting to be a very dangerous situation. There was live wires everywhere ..." said Jerry Kowalski, post commander.
The Donovan Post was selected as the pilot for the program due to the its extreme need and danger.
Jerry Kowalski was so inspired by the work of the Veterans Post Restoration Fund that after his post was restored, he joined them as a volunteer. He is now the President of the nonprofit.
“We just had to do something. It got to the point where it was bad and it wasn’t going to get any better. We didn’t really have the funds to just dish out $10,000 and just pay for the equipment. We don’t have a lot of money in the bank - let’s put it that way. We needed a $10,000 help.”
The Veterans Post Restoration Fund provided it, and now the Donovan Post is back to its typical membership.
“The guys that come in become family. I hear that word a lot. They want to be family. And it doesn’t matter what service branch you were in. Its a family," he added.
3. American Legion (735), West Seneca, N.Y.
"The most important part of this repair was the ramp, so many veterans weren't able to even get into the building," said County Clerk Kearns.
The posts bathrooms were fully repaired with accessible facilities, and a ramp was provided in the front entrance of the building.
Where is the money coming from?
The Veterans Post Restoration Fund is being fund-raised by donations, specifically flags of remembrance.
“We hang these on our walls to honor a veteran. Someone who someone wants to say - here’s a dollar, maybe you can help a post out, but can you remember my dad? Can you remember my mom, can you remember my aunt, my sister, my brother who’s serving us right now.? Its very important that we remember our veterans," said Kearns.
In the near future, you will be able to donate $1 dollar in exchange for paper flags - a token of remembrance for our Western New York heroes.
Until then, you can donate via their website, www.vetrestwny.org
Thus far, 35,000 flags have been sold - lining the walls of the County Clerk's office - each bearing the name of a fallen or current soldier.
“I never served in the military, because I didn't have too - because of the brave men and women who served before me. I think selling these flags and fixing these posts up is our way of saying thank you. Thank you for your service," said Kearns.
The next post to undergo fund-raising is the Marine Corps Post in Lackawanna.
"We are missing nearly 70 members because they can't access our facilities on the second and third floors. There's no elevators, no ramps, no nothing. We miss them so much, it breaks my heart," said Hank Klubek, a member of the post for more than 50 years.
The Marine Corps league, one of the largest posts in Erie County, is inaccessible for the most part for many of their members. The entrance to the first-floor, a basement almost, requires a steep set of stairs. The second and third floors have been completely unused since the beginning of the COVID pandemic.
Members say they are especially heartbroken with the loss of membership as the Marine Corps league is one of the only sole Marine organizations in the area - and one of the few that owns its own building.
"We are at a loss. I don't know what we can do - except pray," said Rick Chmielowic, another member of the Marine Corps Post.
The Post requires an elevator as part of its renovations for the Veterans Post Restoration Fund. The estimates for their facility are more than $100,000.
If you are interested in joining a post, you can find more information here.