Veterans Legacy
Our Story

Veterans Legacy Oregon is a local nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization founded in 2016 to provide integrative treatment in a rural setting to area veterans. We utilize multiple resources to address the medical and psychological needs of veterans in a therapeutic agricultural setting at Camp Alma, located outside of Eugene, Oregon.

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Veterans Legacy’s vision is to break the cycle of veteran suicides, mental health disorders and social costs from the underserved experiencing PTSD, substance abuse and associated traumas. Veterans Legacy’s philosophy is that healing and wellness is a function of a safe environment, meaningful therapeutic experiences and a multi-faceted, community-based system of extended care.

Veterans Legacy is committed to ensuring that our veteran clients’ successes are not limited to Camp Alma. It is our ultimate goal that when finished, each of our clients moves forward in life addiction free and with stable housing and employment skills, providing them with the best possible chances for life-long success.

HONORING THE JOURNEY

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The Veterans Legacy/Camp Alma Story

By Dr. John LeBow

In January of 2020, it has been five years since the saga of Veterans Legacy/Camp Alma began. As we launch a new website and because I’ve had many requests, it would seem that this would be an appropriate time to review the history and milestones that have been achieved during this time. This gives me the chance to recognize the many people that have been responsible for the progress made to date — and again, thank them for their support and faith in the vision.

Ironically, this project began because of hunger! I was sitting on the back porch on a warm day in late December of 2014 reading the annual report from Food for Lane County. I’d contributed to their mission for 15 years at the time but it seemed that every year, no matter how they extended their efforts, there was never enough resources to meet the food needs of the County. Having an agricultural background on a small scale, it had consistently frustrated me as to how we can live in the Willamette Valley, an agricultural heaven, and have people hungry! At that moment, instead of continuing in my trashcan-kicking mood, it became obvious that in addition to sending funding, I needed to see if there was some way that I could help alter the trend in some way.

Pondering the possibilities, my assumption was that FFLC had probably tapped out the available volunteers and a fresh strategy might need to be considered. Having worked with numerous Veterans in my medical practice over the years, I was well aware of mental health and substance abuse issues that seemed to be a very frequent finding. My solution was to start a community garden for Veterans only, thinking that the production from the garden would be an asset to FFLC and that some much needed grassroots therapy might happen during the gardening process.

So armed with a theory, I made an appointment with Beverly Potter, CEO of FFLC, to strategize. She very graciously arranged a meeting, which included some of her support staff. After hearing my plan, they all pointed out that there were already FFLC community gardens that Veterans could participate in. It took some discussion to reach an understanding that I was against mixing Veterans into the community gardens because I firmly believed this would diminish the therapeutic potential of them working with other peers that understand and had participated in the military. I also felt that other sites could be identified that would meet the format that I was proposing.

As we were talking, the resource development person asked if I was familiar with the old Lane County Forest Inmate Camp site southwest of Eugene. Apparently, Lane County had asked FFLC to consider taking over the site, which had been decommissioned over eight years prior. They were absolutely not able to do anything with the property because of location and logistics. As I had no knowledge of this, she went to her office and returned with Google Earth pictures of the site (you can see the same if you go to Alma, Oregon — the only thing that comes up is the work camp site).

I will tell you that the second I saw what was there, it was a game changer!!! It was instantly obvious to me that this land mass and campus could be a site for more intense treatment of Veteran issues and definitely could use agriculture as a backbone of therapy. I thanked them for the epiphany!!!

Because FFLC had no interest in the site, no one had been on the property to get a closer look. After several phone calls to Lane County, I finally identified the individual responsible for oversite of the inmate camp. He told me that no one had been interested in this property for years and he didn’t have any data immediately available. Additionally, when I asked about visiting the site, I was told it would have to be arranged such that a Lane County official was there at the time, even though there was a guard there routinely. Finally, in May I was able to meet Betty Mishou at the camp for a tour. Parenthetically, I’ve kidded one of our Lane County Commissioners that climate change has not affected the glacial pace at which the County moves at times!

I’d asked several of my Vet patients to join me for the visit, including John Lucas, George Lund, Richard Homer and Rick Richards, a friend and former superior of George’s. It was a beautiful sunshiny day, but this didn’t make the picture on the ground any better. The guards had been present to prevent vandalism but no one had done any maintenance for over eight years. A short list of observations: The grass in the courtyard was about 3-feet deep, every roof leaked somewhere with many ceilings falling in, there was no running water, water heaters were freeze-damaged and needed replacing, one green house had been removed while the others were totally overgrown with blackberry vines, none of the HVAC units were operating, etc. The only way to describe the status was structural disaster and environmental deterioration that would require hours of manual labor to even get a chance at agricultural endeavors.

At the debriefing we had afterwards, the opinions voiced were distinctly negative and in military language without nuance to the effect that one would have to have feces for cerebral matter to even consider taking on the rehabilitation of the property, which would be required before even considering a treatment program. I had to agree with them. It was daunting beyond words — but the glimmer of “what if” wouldn’t go away!

Through the summer and fall of 2015, I continued to ponder the potential. I had a patient that worked in the county jail and asked him about the Forest Inmate Camp. He quickly pushed me up through the ranks to Captain Dan Buckwald, commander of the jail, who had actually run the camp for about 10 years. A meeting was arranged and as expected Captain Buckwald, an Air Force veteran himself, was a fountain of information and it was quite apparent that he was extremely interested in bringing this facility back to life with a new objective. Listening to the accomplishments that occurred in taking care of inmates at the site served to rejuvenate my enthusiasm for a challenge.

After more meetings, in early 2016 with knowledgeable potential stakeholders, I finally made the decision to go ahead and incorporate to a 501 (c)(3) non-profit status, naming the entity Veterans Legacy. The specific goal initially was to acquire control of the property and ultimately to turn this into a treatment facility for Veterans with PTSD/substance abuse issues. I asked two of my patients, Pete Ellinginson and Mark Oberle, as well as Dan, to be on the initial Board of Directors. Mark is fond of perpetuating the myth that I asked him to be on the Board during a prostate exam. I’ll just say, it was just shortly afterwards! We quickly put together plans to approach Lane County as to our desire to utilize the facility. Mark, as the only retiree on the board, quickly stepped into the Executive Director position and pursued the process. Even though the camp had been decommissioned for over eight years when the inquiry was made, the consensus among the County Commissioners was that this would force a bid process. Begrudgingly, we understood the necessity as this was a big piece of County property, but we hadn’t anticipated this hurdle. One of the immediate issues was that the special use permit allowing for the camp in amongst forest was about to sunset in March of 2017. Should this occur, the property would revert back to forest-use only. We were told that trying to resurrect the permit was virtually impossible. The trick was to acquire the property and show tangible improvements in order for the permit to be renewed. Now, it was going to be three months to go through the bid process, noticeably cutting into the time frame.

One of the upsides of having to complete the bid was to better frame the intent for the camp use and some basic concepts as to goals and aspirations for treatment of Veterans. We settled on asking for a five-year lease because we had no direct funding of any substance. Presentations were made to the Lane County Commissioners on Aug. 23, 2016, by three groups and by the end of the day Veterans Legacy was selected as the “winner” of a five-year lease with details to be worked out. Needless to say, we were overjoyed — although feeling somewhat like the dog that catches the car and not quite sure what to do with it when he does!

From the outset, Lane County was very gracious in giving us free rein to begin doing whatever upgrades that we wanted to approach, as they were not sure how long it would be to get final papers completed. Determining the extent of needed repairs was a major challenge and it became quite obvious, this would be an evolving list.

Clean up would always be on the list. As it was still a County facility, Dan was able to negotiate a week’s worth of a Sheriff’s work crew at the Camp, for which we were very grateful and it made a huge dent in the overgrowth all over the property. Re-establishing running water seemed to be the most emergent infrastructure issue. Baxter Plumbing and a subcontractor found the leak in the system, which was in the driveway outside the kitchen and a very straight forward repair after the backhoe exposed the break. Mark quickly got the wells/cisterns back online and purified but of course, there was no hot water. Rebel Rally Motorcycle Association stepped up and donated funding for two 100-gallon propane fired water heaters — one in the administrative building and one in the laundry. Plus, the installation costs with Baxter Plumbing, again, helped us with big discounts to get it done.

On Feb. 1, 2017, we formally leased the Camp from Lane County for $100 a year. Meanwhile, Mark had presented the upgrades and permits required to complete them to the Oregon State Forestry Department as proof of utilization. In late March, we were informed that the special use permit was renewed! Now, we could breathe easier!

The remainder of 2017 can be described as constant efforts at cleaning up the buildings and the grounds, using major volunteer efforts coupled with grassroots fundraising. When the Sheriff’s Office closed down the inmate camp, there were many items that simply had to be disposed of in the landfill, but there was always an upside to the process. One fun example was that there were numerous pairs of brand new jeans in the storage area but unfortunately, the jeans all had “INMATE” stamped on one leg so they couldn’t be utilized. While we were all groaning about having to throw them away, one of the volunteer women asked about cutting off the leg with the stamp on it and contributing the rest of the denim to a couple of quilting groups. We all thought this was a superb idea. As you tour Camp Alma buildings, please look at the magnificent quilts we have displayed. You will see a lot of denim integrated into many designs — a wonderful ending to a problem! By the way, each Veteran that rotates through Camp Alma will be given a quilt when he enters and his quilt will go home with him when he reintegrates back into the community — a beautiful gift that our generous supporters in the quilting circles will keep providing going forward.

Speaking of gifts, one decision that stands out was that of a sign for the property. I love this story because it shows how a community comes together to get something done! We’d determined the general design of the sign and after much discussion, the content, but we didn’t know how to get it made. Mark’s brother-in-law volunteered in the woodshop at Sutherlin High School and told him of the amazing things the students were making. He highly suggested that we talk to the teacher, which we did in the spring. Long story short, he was entirely correct as to the elite woodworking that the students produced. In essence, our little sign was a minimal challenge and they agreed to do it. Then, about three months passed and in the middle of the summer we finally called to ask as to its status. In fact, it was completed — they said come and get it! Asking the price for their work and a little concerned because we didn’t have much money in the treasury, the class had voted to donate the wood and construction to our project because they were impressed about the concept of Veterans Legacy. We thanked them profusely and headed home with the beautifully crafted Camp Alma sign. Now, we needed wood to build a frame to hang the sign, which Gene Stringfield Lumber graciously donated along with the hardware. Digging the holes to install the frame was going to be problematic in August with hard clay to deal with. Enter Lane Electric Coop, which sent a truck to easily auger the holes, and the sign became reality! To follow the chain of events, my good friend Dr. Jerry Harper had designed the logo for Veterans Legacy at no charge, Sutherlin High School donated their services to produce the sign, Stringfield Lumber provided the framing lumber and hardware and finally, Lane Electric Coop dug the holes. To me, this was the ultimate example of how a community comes together to accomplish a goal!!

One memorable volunteer endeavor in 2017 was when eight guys from Comfort Flow Heating & Cooling all came out on a Saturday and reevaluated and restarted all of the HVAC units on all of the buildings. It was an amazing day and gave us major insight as to the extent of the need for upgrades in these areas.

The beginning of 2018 had two major developments that would literally reset the course of progress for Veterans Legacy/Camp Alma. First was the contact with Patricia Thompson from Portland, representing the estate of Marlene Johnson, a female Veteran. The estate’s mission was to support a Veteran rehabilitation project in a substantial way and Ms. Thompson had been investigating Veterans Legacy for this purpose. After one of Dan’s famous tours, she was impressed enough to allocate funding from the estate, essentially on a matching fund basis. Ultimately, this amounted to well over $100,000, which over the ensuing months, we more than matched!! This certainly helped to stabilize our funding status for the first time since we incorporated!

In our fundraising efforts, we quickly became aware that large donors were reluctant to commit to a project of this type without knowing that we controlled the land in a more substantial fashion than a short-term lease. Certainly, we couldn’t argue that and with this in mind, Mark sent a letter to the Lane County Board of Commissioners stating to the effect that we’d like to revisit the issue to see what possibilities might present. Dan made a presentation to the Commissioners in July showing progress made and they took this under consideration. In August, much to our delight, we were informed that the County had decided to deed the entire complex to us!! Needless to say, this changed the perspective on everything!!

As with any group, there is evolution in leadership. Mark expressed the need to step down and spend more time as a grandfather to Rosalie, newly arrived on the scene. His contributions to the initial efforts were incalculable. But in the Veterans Legacy world, family is always first, and we began looking for a new Executive Director. As luck would have it, Dan Buckwald was able to retire from the Sheriff’s Office in June after 29 years of service, most recently as the commander at the Lane County Jail. Although we did interview some candidates, the obvious selection was Dan. During his years with the Sheriff’s Office, he had actually run the Forest Inmate Camp for about 14 years and obviously knew every nuance about the facility. Coupled with his extensive connections within the correctional community and Lane County government at large, this was a huge blessing!

One of the acquisition successes in 2018 came as a result of making the acquaintance of Tim Carroll, facilities director at two of the dorms on campus at the University of Oregon. He informed us of dorm furniture change-outs that were occurring and asked if we would be interested, which of course we were. A herculean effort by volunteers got 50 captain’s beds moved to the camp in July. In August, Crosstown Movers, thanks to owner Mike Somerville, moved 50 wardrobe closets to the camp — plus a piano from U of O, as well! This provided all the cubicle furniture we would need and more — a major blessing.

After Lane County agreed to deed the property to Veterans Legacy, it was apparent that a celebration was in order!! We began planning for the Transfer of Command ceremony, making every effort to include the many who had been instrumental in moving the vision forward. On Nov. 9, 2018, the ceremony began on a perfect sunny day with Rolling Thunder of motorcycles from Rebel Rally and Combat Veterans groups carrying the American Flag to be moved to the ceremonial circle for the National Anthem. Greetings from Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and Congressman Peter DeFazio were read by their representatives. Commissioner Gary Williams and I then signed ceremonial documents transferring the property to Veterans Legacy from Lane County, which was followed by a stirring speech by Bud Fitzgerald, representing the Board of Directors. The ultimate blessing came from Native American Veterans Wes Weathers (Cherokee) and Dean Armstrong (Lakota Sioux), who blessed the land and all participants with sacred smudging for each. I’m told two eagles were circling over the ceremony as this occurred — undoubtedly an omen of good. Finally, the celebration was brought to a close with Taps from bugler. Thanks to the Marlene Johnson estate, refurbishment on the facility shifted into high gear on campus in 2019. This was aided by the presence of Rick Summers and his wife Lynda, on site. Rick, a Vietnam-era Navy Seal with a contractor’s license, was able to direct many projects, especially tile installation all over the Camp. In-kind donations from Home Depot, Johnson Air Products, Comfort Flow, Twin Rivers Plumbing, and many more too numerous to list, rehabilitated the campus to the point that intake of our first Veteran to the program was on the immediate horizon by year’s end.

During this time frame, we were delighted to be gifted with not one, but two, fire trucks!!! From Harrisburg, a 500-gallon pumper truck and from Lorane, a wildland truck with a 1,000-gallon capacity. With no fire protection in the area, these were desperately needed pieces of equipment that not only protect Camp Alma but can be used in other emergency situations.

As Veterans Legacy has matured as an organization, it was able to look forward to upgrading staff development. In October, Brandon Huff came on board taking over agricultural responsibilities for the property and developing programs for Veterans to participate in.

Other upgrades needed, such as updates for the website and rebranding of the Patriot Partner program, were set in motion.