GVSU team part of community effort to help military veterans and families with home improvements

A person holds open a bag while another person places a shovel into the bag.
Sean Moriarty, left, and Christian Lee work on a mulching project.

A team from Grand Valley joined other volunteers across the community May 13 to help military veterans and their families with work on their homes as part of a Heart of West Michigan United Way effort.

Operation United is an annual event mobilizing volunteers to help with work around the homes, primarily landscaping, as a way to honor those who have served and their families. 

Representatives from the Secchia Military and Veteran Resource Center, the Office of Student Life and Laker Vets gathered at a home in the Grand Rapids area to rake, mulch, prune, dig up plants and do other yard work to help the homeowner, whose late husband served in the U.S. Marine Corps.

“As veterans we have a built-in community, so when we had the chance to not only partner with the Office of Student Life, but to do so helping out ‘one of our own,’ we jumped at the chance," said Jill Wolfe, GVSU Military and Veterans Resource manager. "A lot of people want to thank vets for our service, which is nice, but often what’s nicer is for us to have the opportunity to give back. It’s very much what we do.”

One person kneels and another bends over while working in a garden.
Valerie Guzman, left, and Megan Wierenga, standing, help with the yard work.
One person holds a shovel near a wheelbarrow while another person helps with the contents of the shovel.
Christian Lee, left, and Jenny Hall-Jones, vice president for Student Affairs, work on a project.
A person rakes near some trees.
Jay McBride rakes where some fresh mulch had just been laid.

Nick Brouwer, director of corporate philanthropy for Heart of West Michigan United Way, was part of the work group. He said Operation United volunteers fanned out to more than two dozen locations, using supplies donated by Home Depot to help work on homes. He noted some Home Depot employees also took on larger projects beyond the scope of United Way volunteers, such as replacing windows.

Brouwer said Grand Valley is an "amazing partner" both through volunteerism and the employee campaign. He added: "You can see the joy that it brings. That's what it's all about."

Watching the crew and taking photos was the homeowner, Jill Alley, who repeatedly told volunteers how grateful she was for the help, particularly after a rough year with a number of health challenges.

"This is just overwhelming to me, the thought that there's all of these people here helping," Alley said.

A person smiles resting their chin on their hand.
Homeowner Jill Alley listens to volunteers introducing themselves.
A large group of people and one dog kneel and stand before a tree in a posed shot.
Homeowner Jill Alley stands in her yard with the volunteer crew.

Jay McBride, a retired U.S. Army veteran and multimedia journalism major, reminded volunteers to stay hydrated on what was a hot day. Stopping for a moment as he raked under some bushes, McBride said it is programmed into military personnel to help someone when needed.

"You know that we'd do it for anyone, but when you find out Jill's husband was a Marine, you feel like you're helping out your own," McBride said.

Melissa Baker-Boosamra, associate director of Student Life, told the group how much she admired the turnout of veterans wanting to help their own.

She said later that this volunteer work was an opportunity to engage in an important project while also underscoring for campus efforts to encourage student voting that it is a right that is tied to the sacrifice of veterans.

"All of us are members of the broader community, and I don't want to take that freedom for granted. I wanted to be able to show our gratitude to veterans for the freedoms we enjoy," said  Baker-Boosamra, adding, "It's also important to show our student veterans how important they are to us."

A shovel is seen digging into the ground next to a stump. The stump is surrounded by greenery with purple flowers.