Five Veterans Thriving in Customized Homes, Thanks to Homes for Our Troops and PennTerra Engineering
State College, PA - Growing up, Rob Kressler’s dad often took him to job sites where he would help measure house sites 100 feet at a time with an old-fashioned plumb bob and a metal tape measure. Those memories and the meaningful work the pair did together made an impression that has stayed with Kressler through his 30-year career at PennTerra Engineering (PTE), where he is a professional engineer, an employee-owner, and the Design Department Director. Now, Kressler enjoys giving back to veterans by donating his skills to help make their specialty houses a reality through Homes for Our Troops (HFOT), a national charity.
“When you’re working for the homeowner, especially a veteran, you think like an owner, as if it’s your house,” Kressler explained, thinking of the veterans and their families who have moved into the house plans that he has designed.
To date, Kressler has assisted with five house plans, averaging a week of donated time per project. The PTE team has donated hundreds of hours of time to these projects, which have been located in Mill Hall, Harrisville, Wind Gap, and two in Gettysburg.
“Since HFOT is located in Massachusetts, we try to help them out with local contacts,” noted Kressler. “After they have a property or are thinking about purchasing a property, we prepare a plan to make sure it will work within their budget. Then, we prepare a site plan, locating the house on the property, followed by the grading, utilities, and stormwater drainage design.”
HFOT’s homes have many custom modifications to suit the veterans who will live in them. Modifications, such as wheelchair accessible showers, roll-under sinks, one-floor living, lowered kitchen countertops, automatic door openers, wider hallways and doorways, and pull-down shelving, make daily living a little easier and increase veterans’ independence in a safe environment.
“All the entrances to the home need to be completely accessible, as per the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines, from the sidewalks and porches to the back patio and the garage. These homes have specific requirements that you wouldn’t find in a typical home,” Kressler continued. “This is where our experience helps.”
Although HFOT offers a handful of layout options for a standard 2,800 square foot, one-story ranch house, Kressler acknowledged that “each house site presents its own challenges.”
Those challenges are well-worth the reward of seeing disabled veterans and their families move into homes that have been customized to allow maximum mobility freedom and help alleviate some of the financial burden from their lives.
In 2016, Marine Lance Corporal Timothy Dobos of Mill Hall moved into his custom home, where the modifications help with his service-connected Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) symptoms and allow greater space for his power wheelchair. Dobos has since graduated from Lock Haven University with a degree in applied physics and lives in his HFOT home with his three children and his wife, Robyn.
“Thank you very much for supporting the men and women who served our country,” said Dobos. “Thank you specifically for helping me; your gift will surely change my life.”
In Iraq, Navy PO3 Justin Hendrickson’s vehicle encountered an improvised explosive device (IED) that eventually resulted in the amputation of his right leg. After just three months of intense work and determination, Hendrickson was discharged from Walter Reed Medical Center, walking with a prosthetic leg. Before moving into a specially designed house by HFOT, he was limited to just one room in his old house on days when the pain in his residual limb caused him to rely on crutches or a wheelchair; it also impeded his ability to care for his wife, Jennie, who was diagnosed with brain cancer. Since moving into their customized home, Hendrickson has earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing and a Master’s degree in education and leadership; he has also secured a job as a nurse at a local hospital and teaches college courses. Most importantly, he is able to easily navigate his HFOT home and care for his wife.
“This home enables us to live as normal of a life as we can,” said Hendrickson. “It’s an opportunity for freedom and safety.”
Army Sergeant Lyndon Sampang was deployed in Afghanistan in 2010 when a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) inflicted injuries that resulted in the loss of his right leg below the knee. Now medically retired, Sampang enjoys an active lifestyle, competing as an adaptive athlete and training others with specialized workouts. In his previous house, the steep yard and narrow stairs to his children’s bedrooms on the second floor were substantial hindrances to allowing Sampang to fully engage in family life. Now in his HFOT custom-built home, Sampang is able to enjoy greater mobility within his home and engage in family life more fully.
“HFOT and its supporters are a miracle of God,” Sampang said. “Your generosity and kindness are greatly appreciated.”
An IED in Afghanistan claimed Gunnery Sergeant Glen Silva’s left leg in 2010; collateral injuries included partial amputation of his left-hand fingers, traumatic brain injury, damage to his left arm, a damaged abdomen, and other severe injuries. During recovery, he encouraged injured service members to learn about their injuries, taught them leadership skills, and recommended ones who he perceived as “more deserving” to apply for an adaptive home with HFOT. After proposing to Heather, Silva decided to also apply for a home with HFOT to secure his new family’s future. In his old apartment, Heather worried about her fiancée’s safety, especially while showering. Now, their new home’s customizations allow for safer living when the family of four isn’t camping, travelling, or at a public speaking engagement.
“I can never say ‘thank you’ or put into words how much this incredible opportunity means to me and my family,” said Silva. “It enables me to breathe a little easier and takes something else off my stressing list.”
Sworn into the Marine Corps on the morning of September 11, 2011, Corporal Dan Lasko’s unit was on a reconnaissance mission in Afghanistan in 2004 when an IED took his lower left leg, gave him a traumatic brain injury, and resulted in several other severe injuries. Although medically retired, Lasko has stayed active by coaching youth sports and speaking at public events. However, his two-story home on a hill was preventing him from fully enjoying life with his wife, Jess, and their two boys. The donated HFOT home that the Laskos received not only empowers Dan, but also provided the opportunity for him to continue his education and start a business.
“Because of you, we are able to live and lead a productive life without constant worry about our injuries or other obstacles,” said Lasko.
The impact of HFOT is overwhelmingly positive, for the veterans, their families, and their communities.
“Homes for Our Troops has such a specific mission and yet the impact is very holistic,” noted John Sepp, P.E., President of PennTerra Engineering, an employee-owned civil engineering firm. “We are always honored to partner with Homes for Our Troops, donating our services and getting another veteran into a well-deserved and customized home. At PennTerra, we talk about ‘shaping the community’ and this is an excellent example of taking the time to make sure that all residents - and their needs - can feel fully at home and addressed in our community.”
"Rob and I have worked together for over 30 years; there is no one better than him to design home sites," Sepp continued. "Seven years ago, Homes for Our Troops contacted our office for a quote. After learning about their mission, we immediately recognized the opportunity to donate our skills to these heroes as a token of our gratitude for their service. I consider it an honor to work for people who have sacrificed their lives and given up so much to allow us to live the fortunate lives that we have in this country."