It came on quickly. One day Brian Hitchcock was living in an apartment in Caribou. The next, difficulties with his landlord left him without a place to stay.

Then he heard about a homeless shelter, founded by veterans for veterans, on the outskirts of town.

“I would say they’re lifesavers, really,” said Hitchcock, who served as a specialist in the U.S. Army from 2005-2009, including a deployment to northern Iraq. Had he not found this place back in July, “things probably wouldn’t have turned out very well.”

Karen St. Peter, treasurer/fundraising director, and Roger Felix, board member, of the Dahlgren-Skidgel Farm of Hope in Caribou. Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist

It’s called the Dahlgren-Skidgel Farm of Hope, named for two native sons of Caribou – 2nd Lt. Eric Dahlgren and Sgt. Donald Skidgel – who fought with the Army in World War II and Vietnam, respectively, and received the Congressional Medal of Honor for their heroics on the battlefield.

Some thought, when it all began three years ago, that it was a solution in search of a problem. Homeless veterans? In northern Maine? Since when?

But veterans in these parts knew different. They’d hear of the divorces that often come on the heels of military service, the bankruptcies brought on by hard times in a region where few things come easily, the homes lost to fire, the myriad other travails that straddle the fine line between having a roof over one’s head and sleeping in a car, or the woods, or wherever.

And so, working under the banner United Veterans of Maine, they took action. The five-unit shelter, which holds up to a dozen veterans and, when necessary, their family members, now stands on a hill on the road out of town just over a mile from the Northern Maine Veterans Cemetery.

“If we don’t take care of our own, then who’s going to do it?” asked Roger Felix, an Army veteran of the Gulf War and a member of United Veterans of Maine’s board of directors. “Hopefully we can give them a little bit of hope and say, ‘Hey look, you’re not alone out there.’ ”

It’s an all-volunteer organization with an annual operating budget of just over $60,000, enough to keep the lights and heat on and pay a modest mortgage for the 12-acre property, which for years was home to a florist and flower-growing operation before fire destroyed much of the business in 2015.

Karen St. Peter, of the Dahlgren-Skidgel Farm of Hope in Caribou, says normal fundraising activities for the nonprofit have all but evaporated during the pandemic: “It is the biggest challenge right now.” Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist

Much of the material was donated for the four new cabins, each split into two living units that can hold up to two residents when necessary. (The fifth unit is a hunting camp donated by a veteran from Allagash.) A sign at the entrance to the shelter displays the names of local businesses that have helped out in one way or another: Katahdin Cedar Log Homes, S.W. Collins Co., Aroostook Automation, Lowe’s, Trombley Industries, Pella, Sherwin Williams and Cuddledown.

The bulk of the labor to build the units came from the young adults at the nearby Loring Job Corps center, where Felix serves as the business and community liaison.

“They weren’t even born when Afghanistan started,” Felix said, looking down at an inscription – “Loring Job Corps Cement Masons 2017” – that the young workers proudly carved into one of the concrete pads. “They’ve never lived in a world where there hasn’t been a war.”

But for all the free help and materials, it’s still a shoestring operation – particularly amid the COVID-19 pandemic. United Veterans of Maine received a one-time $100,000 grant in July from the Maine Office of the Attorney General, money that will go toward paying down the homeless shelter’s debt and putting it on more stable financial footing. But when it comes to the daily operating expenses, normal fundraising activities have all but evaporated.

“It is the biggest challenge right now,” said Karen St. Peter, the shelter’s treasurer and fundraising director.

Most of the labor to build the units at the Dahlgren-Skidgel Farm of Hope came from the young adults at the nearby Loring Job Corps center. Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist

“Thursdays on Sweden Street,” a weekly outdoor festival in downtown Caribou, once provided a perfect venue for raffle sales to benefit the shelter. But the pandemic shut all of that down, along with the shelter’s annual benefit golf tournament and a spaghetti dinner run in cooperation with the local Lister-Knowlton Post 9389, Veterans of Foreign Wars.

To compensate for those losses, St. Peter, herself a seven-year Army veteran, organized an online auction that will run through Nov. 15. She’s also organized “$20 in ’20 Keep the Lights On Campaign” a year-long effort through which donors can cover the per-day cost for a veteran – or a “bed night,” in shelter parlance – for a mere $20.

One veteran for one night might not sound like much. But consider this: In October, the shelter surpassed 2,500 bed nights thus far for 2020, each one the difference between a clean, warm place to stay and another night of couch surfing, sleeping in the back of a car or holing up somewhere in the woods.

Rhoda Stanley is keenly aware of the difference. She and her husband, Wayne, who served with the Army in Vietnam, have been at the Farm of Hope since late 2018 after they sold their home in Milford and had trouble transitioning to a new home closer to the Northern Maine Vet Center in Caribou, where Wayne receives treatment for a heart condition and various other medical issues.

Rhoda has become the shelter’s unofficial laundry lady, cleaning not just her and her husband’s clothes but also doing the wash for the other veterans while they fan out each day to various jobs or volunteer work throughout the area. She also serves as a much-needed sounding board for some of the younger veterans.

Karen St. Peter, treasurer/fundraising director, and Roger Felix, board member, of the Dahlgren-Skidgel Farm of Hope in Caribou. The five-unit shelter holds up to a dozen veterans and their families. “If we don’t take care of our own, then who’s going to do it?” Felix says. Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist

“We sometimes sit out in the evening and talk and stuff,” she said. “Because a lot of them don’t have family from around here, so we do things. And on the holidays, we try to set up a Christmas meal, a Thanksgiving meal, Easter, things like that.”

This year, when Christmas rolls around, Rhoda and Wayne might come by as visitors. They’ve finally managed to build a new home down in Milford and expect to move in by early December.

Still, even as they get back on their feet, they’ll never forget the help they received. Not from some big government bureaucracy, not from a local general assistance program, but from veterans dedicated to the simple act of helping fellow veterans.

“I love this town.” Rhoda said. “The people, the generosity.”

And, above all, the hope.

Related Headlines

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: