LOCKPORT – With arms full of gifts and dinners with all the trimmings, Jennifer D’Andrea and her volunteers recently visited active duty military, veterans and their families throughout Niagara County in need of a boost this holiday season.
D’Andrea said her group’s goal was to aid 250 individuals this Christmas holiday, but it ended up collecting enough to help 390.
"When I sat down at my computer recently and looked at the numbers and realized this, I was overwhelmed,” she recalled. “I cried because I was so happy to think that we’ve been able to do something like this.”
D’Andrea founded S.E.R.V. Niagara four years ago as a small, grassroots organization focused on helping active duty military, veterans and their families in Niagara County, particularly with housing. The group steps up its efforts during the holidays.
“We buy Christmas gifts for the children that have been requested by the families and wrap and label them so that a child knows this is his or her gift, not just random gifts for kids,” she added. “And, we have single veterans, many from the Vietnam era, and we’ll bring dinner and a care package to them, too.
"I think we visited pretty much every township and city in Niagara County this Christmas,” she said.
D’Andrea calculated that S.E.R.V. Niagara – whose mission is Supporting, Empowering, Respecting Veterans and Their Families – has given support to well over 1,000 individuals throughout the county.
And now, S.E.R.V. Niagara has a New Year’s wish of its own.
It currently offers permanent housing to single veterans or veterans and their families who are homeless or at risk of being homeless, or are disabled. The group rents out four furnished two-bedroom apartments in two beautifully renovated houses on Walnut Street in Lockport.
D’Andrea said her group wants to expand its housing offerings to North Tonawanda and has been searching for a multiple-unit property in a safe neighborhood, close to public transportation.
“We’ve been working on some projects in North Tonawanda and feel very welcome there, so our focus is on NT right now,” said D‘Andrea. “We’ve been going through the multiple listings and talking to business owners and haven’t found the right property yet, but we’re very hopeful we’ll find something soon. Maybe someone would like to work with us to find something, or even donate a building to us, because we are a 501(c)3 organization, so it can be a tax write-off. But it has to be safe, secure housing – that’s important to us.
“We are the only organization currently providing veteran-exclusive housing in Niagara County,” she added. “In the future, after we get established in North Tonawanda first, we’d like to go to Niagara Falls and do the same thing. Once these major hubs are established, we’d love to go to the outlying communities in Niagara County who would embrace us.
“We want to expand because the need is here in Niagara County,” she said simply.
D’Andrea recently took some time to talk about the organization’s beginnings, what it has accomplished and its plans.
Q: Do you rely heavily on donations and volunteers?
A: Our housing is self-sustaining. The rent our veterans pay us takes care of maintenance costs for the apartments. Some vets pay the rent all on their own and some have help with it from a variety of agencies.
We apply for grants to cover the costs of renovations of new apartments. We had a huge Home Depot grant to help us renovate our two Lockport houses, which are three doors from each other. Volunteers from the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office were really instrumental in both gutting the houses and then working on the renovations. And then Home Depot partnered with the Service Collaborative of Western New York to provide roughly 250 volunteers to renovate all four kitchens and four bathrooms and beautify a two-block area – all in one day.
We don’t rely on (private) donations, but, of course, we are always grateful for them, because they help us put on bigger Thanksgiving and Christmas events.
We are a small, all-volunteer board and we have another 10 or so people who help as volunteers. But once we acquire our properties, we need 10,000 volunteers to help renovate them (laugh).
Q: How long can your tenants stay in your apartments?
A: This is permanent housing and they sign a one-year lease, renewable if all is going well. We have very strict criteria. We’ve worked very hard to provide everything for the veterans here and we want tenants who will take care of this property. Our board has a housing committee and they review applications and conduct interviews.
Of course, we want our tenants to buy their own homes someday, maybe if they get a new career or expand their families. This could be a stepping stone for some, or they could stay with us for as long as they like.
Q: What was your inspiration for starting this organization?
A: When my former husband passed away, I started looking for help, for programs for families like mine. My ex-husband died of an overdose. We had a 13-year-old son. In the world of addiction, they were focused on the addict, but not on the family, and we were suffering, too. I couldn’t find the resources to help us and wanted to create something for kids. I wanted to fill in the gaps.
I founded the Kids Breaking Free Foundation Inc. (Kids BFF) and we became a 501(c)3 in 2012. We started forming partnerships with agencies and with the courts, and conducting workshops.
When I started talking to people, they told me there was a real need for veterans, particularly a need for veteran housing, and that’s how I founded S.E.R.V. Niagara, within a year. The two have the same board and bylaws, but we are focused on S.E.R.V. Niagara at this point.
I’m a military brat. I grew up on a base and that helped me recognize the needs of veterans and their families, too.
Q: What is your background?
A: I am self-employed as an independent settlement consultant. I have a financial/insurance/legal background and have been doing this about 18 years.
When I started S.E.R.V., I had no professional experience in any of this, I just started a grass-roots organization and built it from the ground up.
I was born in Buffalo and my family lives in Williamsville, but I grew up on a Marine Corps base. My dad was in the Navy and my step-father was in the Marines. I moved to (Marine Corps Base) Camp Lejeune (in North Carolina) when I was around 5, so the military has been a constant in my life.
Q: What are some of the partnerships with volunteers you’ve formed?
A: For the Christmas drive, we meet for a day in mid-December at the Walmart in Lockport with the New York Chapter 1 of the Hogs and Heroes Foundation of America and they help us shop. They’ve been a big sponsor of ours and we benefit from a major fundraiser they hold on Armed Forces Day each year, too. We just found out they’re going to do this again for us in 2018, for the fourth year. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to do Christmas like we do. They’ve been so generous to us, and by having them help us shop, they get involved and see where their money and efforts go.
And, Walmart has been very good to us. Last year, they donated 22 Christmas trees and ornaments, too.
Then Cornerstone Community Federal Credit Union volunteers wrap and label all of the gifts. They are another big supporter of ours. We’ve also entered into a partnership with Cornerstone whereby they offer the veterans financial guidance.
We have wonderful volunteers. We’re a small community and when something good is happening, everyone wants to get involved.
Q: How else do you help veterans and their families, besides providing holiday meals, gifts and housing?
A: Depending on their individual situations, we’ll give them a list of resources, because we’ve worked with nearly everyone in the community and we’ve formed partnerships or relationships with many organizations.
Q: What does the future hold?
A: We want to take it to the next level and grow. We want to be able to help even more people in Niagara County.
For more information, call D’Andrea at 438-5437 or visit: Facebook or www.SERVniagara.org.