The long and otherwise desolate road in northeastern Escondido that leads to the home of Vietnam-era Army veterans Lee and Heide White was suddenly lined with cars and white trucks bearing the San Diego State emblem.
A sign hanging outside of the black metal gate surrounding the single-story house read “Mission: H3 Healing Our Heroes’ Homes.”
The commotion inside the gates was the sound of dozens of volunteers from Embrace, a nonprofit organization that started at SDSU and promotes social and physical wellness programs that serve underprivileged communities, such as disabled veterans like the Whites.
On the last weekend of July, a community including the San Diego State women’s basketball team, came together to help restore the home of Lee and his wife. The couple has lived in their home for about 14 years.
Throughout time, Lee’s old knee injury, which occurred while he was still in the military, has led to debilitating back pain. He also has spinal stenosis, which doctors cannot operate on because it’s too risky.
The combination of Lee’s health issues coupled with the economic downturn affecting Heide’s printing and bulk-mail business, has made upkeep on their home difficult.
“Business has been so bad for us. It’s just been hard to make ends meet,” Heide said.
Enter SDSU alumnus and Embrace CEO Sean Sheppard.
“We contacted the American Legion post up here,” Sheppard said. “I told them we were looking for a disabled veteran couple that was low-income and might need some restorative work done on their house and they selected the Whites.”
Lee thought it was a joke when Sheppard called him on the phone and asked if he had a leaky roof.
“The next thing you know, I have six contractors out here and the people from San Diego State going all through my house and I’m thinking, ‘What in the world?’” Lee said.
Embrace volunteers and the skilled tradesmen of the SDSU Physical Plant Department painted the house. On the inside they updated the plumbing in the bathrooms and kitchen. The office the Whites work out of will have new cabinets put in to help with organization. This past winter, one of the bedrooms began to leak. The team also repaired the ceiling for the couple.
Lee said the collective effort has mushroomed. The H3 project was made possible in part by seed money from the North County-based Leichtag Family Foundation. Materials purchased through grants or donated are valued at $6,500. Volunteers were also treated to lunch from the southern-style barbeque of Smokin’ Joe Jones.
Lee credits Johnny Eaddy, associate director of the SDSU Physical Plant Department for the idea to help disabled veterans.
“He approached me last year and he said, ‘We often have a lot of materials left over that we throw away. Why don’t we use it to help somebody in need?’” Sheppard said. “That was the seed that got planted and it evolved into helping disabled veterans.”
Sheppard estimates the total volunteer time from the plant is valued at $16,272.
“I know I can speak for all of us on this one: We aren’t doing this for some reward,” Eaddy said. “We’re doing it because it feels good to give.”
SDSU trucks were seen hauling away piles of overgrown oleander cut down by the women’s basketball team to nearby Evergreen Nursery, who offered to use the green waste as mulch and compost, saving the volunteers many trips to the dump.
Director of basketball operations for SDSU’s women’s basketball team Tammy Stephens said that the team was looking for a way to give back.
“(Sheppard) is an Aztec,” Stephens said. “It started out wanting to support Sean and then turned into helping Lee and Heide. This home project that he’s got for our heroes looked like something that we’d be excited about helping with.”
Despite some allergies, the 11 basketball players used shears to cut down excess greenery on the Whites’ 2.5 acre property.
“They were all looking forward to coming out here today so I’m proud of them,” Stephens said. “They’re jumping right in and getting some work done.”
A key focus of the project is to connect college student volunteers with those in need in their communities. Sheppard adds that most college students don’t have experience with veterans, let alone disabled veterans.
“These are our future leaders,” Sheppard said. “They’re going to be in a decision-making position with someone’s company if not own their own company. When they’re making decisions, they should always think about helping people in need.”
One such student could be freshman women’s basketball point guard Ahjalee Harvey. The Bay Area native volunteered for the event after being in town for only three weeks. She is a business major at SDSU and said that she plans to specialize in entrepreneurship.
“We’re just coming together, this is our first team function and it’s nice to do some community service and help out,” Harvey said. “Individually, it really makes me feel good to be able to do something helpful for anyone.”
“What better way to give back to those who have given so much to our country than to help disabled veterans?” Sheppard asked.
“We’re ready to turn over a new leaf and walk around with a smile on our faces for a change,” Heide said.