Family members and volunteers say the closing this fall of an outpatient health care center located in the Northtown Plaza is a painful blow to the veterans it serves.
Local Department of Veterans Affairs administrators decided to shut down the program, located in the Northtown Business Center on Sheridan Drive, because they say the property owner intends to tear down the building as part of its overhaul of Northtown Plaza. WS Development said it has other intentions for the space but it has not decided whether to demolish the building.
The VA has told veterans and their families that they must find a private treatment program to replace the services offered at the outpatient center. The VA will cover the cost of any new treatment, but advocates say the community-based programs won't offer the same benefits or sense of camaraderie the veterans enjoyed at the Northtown Plaza center.
"It's like a fraternity. It can't be duplicated on the outside," said Judi Czora, a Snyder resident who has volunteered with the VA program for 10 years.
The VA's Adult Day Health Care program moved into the Northtown Business Center, 3131 Sheridan Drive near Bailey Avenue, in 2011.
The program previously was located in the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Buffalo. But it was moved to Northtown Plaza to make it easier for veterans to access the program and to cut down on traffic at the hospital during drop-off and pick-up times, said Evangeline Conley, a VA spokeswoman in Buffalo.
The 108 veterans who take part receive physical and occupational therapy in group settings. The center also provides a rehabilitative memory medical unit for veterans with Alzheimer's or dementia.
An average of 37 patients per day use the center, said Conley, and they come in twice a week.
Czora helps an occupational therapist at the center. She said most of the veterans she works with served during World War II or the Korean War.
Czora said veterans come into the center not knowing each other, some more standoffish than others, but they soon bond over their shared experiences. She recalled one patient who had suffered an aneurysm and had been told he may not live or, if he did survive, he may not ever walk again.
This patient came into the program in low spirits, but eventually regained his mobility and became comfortable with the staff and veterans, Czora said. Now he volunteers there himself.
Carolyn Birmingham's husband, Michael, 79, served as a weather specialist in the Navy on ships in the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. He is classified as a Vietnam Veteran and has used the program for 2½ years, following the diagnosis of Alzheimer's he received five years ago.
Michael Birmingham goes to the center every Tuesday and Thursday. He enjoys seeing the friends he's made there, receiving therapy, playing board games and basketball from a seated position. If one of the veterans makes a free throw, on the first try, they get a candy bar, Carolyn said.
"He is so happy. He's happy to go. He's happy to see his comrades," she said.
He also receives evaluations from University at Buffalo medical interns or residents. During one exam, a doctor noticed a mark on Michael's back that was later determined to be skin cancer, Carolyn said.
The Birminghams learned about the center's closing in a letter from Michael J. Swartz, executive director of the VA Western New York Healthcare System.
The VA's five-year lease for the space ended in April 2016 but the agency has remained there on a month-to-month basis.
"After conducting the review required for all federal property leases, the determination has been made to transition VA Adult Day Health Care services to community contract providers close to your home," Swartz wrote July 19.
The program will close its doors by Oct. 1. The nine VA staffers who worked there will shift back to the medical center.
Birmingham and Czora both said they wished the VA had done more to find a new space for the program instead of scattering the veterans among various medical offices.
Conley said in an email that VA officials in Buffalo "decided to give local eligible veterans the choice of where they get their ADHC services," with the VA picking up the cost.
She said WS Development has decided to demolish the building either late this year or early 2019.
However, Brian Sciera, WS Development's senior vice president for leasing, said it was the VA that informed WS the agency would be out by the end of September.
"We have worked with them while also letting them know that we had other intentions for the space, and a different direction for the project," Sciera said.
He said WS could reuse the Northtown Business Center building, which sits on the eastern side of the Northtown Plaza property near Whole Foods Market, because it's structurally in good shape.
“We are currently vetting a number of tenants and uses for this building. At this time we are more keenly focused on the west side of the project," Sciera said. That's where WS plans to tear down existing retail buildings and construct new space for L.L. Bean, Pottery Barn and other, unnamed tenants.
As for Czora, she said she is so frustrated she doesn't know if she'll return to volunteering with the VA after the center's closing, though she feels a strong sense of devotion to the veterans.
And Carolyn Birmingham said she is reaching out to members of Congress, and the media, but she is not optimistic the center can be saved.
"It makes me sick," she said, "because I see so much good coming out of this place."