Helping Veterans Heal: Natural Stone Institute RISEs to the Occasion

Words: Cass Stern

Words: Cassandra Stern 
Photos: Natural Stone Institute, Gary Sinise Foundation

"These service members and first responders have already done their part. They have already given themselves. And it is our great privilege, through the trust of the American people and the support given to us, to do our part to give something back to them." — Gary Sinise

Throughout history, mankind has been involved in numerous conflicts, and millions of lives have been forever changed by the landscape and realities of war- none more so than those on the front lines. Oftentimes, war robs our young men and women of more than just their youth and innocence, also leaving behind grievous physical injuries to match the emotional and psychological challenges. Modern weapons are more deadly, accurate, and efficient than at any other period in history, and as an unfortunate result, some veterans will come home needing critical care and assistance to live normal lives as a result of their resulting injuries. 

In 2001, our nation grieved the losses of 9/11 as one. The terrible events of that day left a profound and lasting impact on every U.S. citizen, especially those with family in the armed service or those who are advocates for first responders like actor and musician Gary Sinise. As a result of his experience working with the Disabled American Veterans, Gold and Blue Star Families, and other veteran’s service organizations following 9/11, Sinise was inspired to start his own foundation in 2003. 

The Gary Sinise Foundation 

According to The Gary Sinise Foundation website, their mission is clear and simple: “At the Gary Sinise Foundation, we serve our nation by honoring our defenders, veterans, first responders, their families, and those in need. We do this by creating and supporting unique programs designed to entertain, educate, inspire, strengthen, and build communities.” There are a variety of successful programs within the Foundation that have changed the lives of people with disabilities as a result of their military or police service. To reach these individuals and provide the services they need, the R.I.S.E. program utilizes the donations of time, manpower, and resources from a variety of different organizations like the Natural Stone Institute.

In early 2009, Sinise visited the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. On that fateful day, he would meet U.S. Army Specialist Brendan Marrocco, who is the first post-9/11 quadruple amputee after being wounded in Iraq when his vehicle sustained a catastrophic hit from a bomb blast. This meeting left a deep impact on Sinise, and when the FDNY commissioner approached him later that year with a request to raise funds to build Staten Island native Marrocco a specially adapted smart home, Sinise jumped at the chance. This experience inspired him to later found the R.I.S.E or Restoring Independence Supporting Empowerment program. 

The goal of this program is to provide wounded veterans and severely injured first responders with debt-free homes that have been completely outfitted and adapted for their disabilities and unique needs. To date, the program has provided “61 specially adapted smart homes completed for our severely wounded heroes, 20 homes modified or retrofitted for defenders in need,” and thousands of volunteer hours and additional donations of money and supplies. 

R.I.S.E and the Natural Stone Institute 

In order for programs like R.I.S.E to do the most they can for the most people possible, it involves contractors and suppliers like those in the masonry and natural stone industries to donate their time, materials, and talent into making homes for wounded veterans and first responders a reality. The Natural Stone Institute is one such organization and Pam Hammond is the one who has helped make their partnership a great success. 

Since partnering with the R.I.S.E program in 2016, says Hammond, “we’ve helped provide resources through our members and our outreach to help them construct 25 homes,” which is an incredible impact and accomplishment. Hammond has a critical role in reaching out to members for donations and engagement, and the members continue to respond with an outpouring of support for the program. 

Association members are involved in the R.I.S.E. program in a number of important ways, shares Hammond, which includes “fabricators who cut and fabricate the natural stone for the countertops that are being put in and installed in the home, as well as slab supply company members who donate slab material for the countertops.” Other participants include  “exterior stone company members, who have donated the stone for exterior cladding on the homes or fireplaces or chimneys that are clad in natural stone.” Thanks to the generous efforts of Natural Stone Institute members, “100% of the materials and the services [used in the 25 homes] are all 100% contributed.” 

Impacting Lives Forever 

While the lasting benefits of a program like R.I.S.E are often obvious for the recipients and their families, other positive impacts are a little more subtle. When asked about how the experience has affected them, Hammond says members’ number one response is that it’s “the absolute best experience they’ve ever had.” R.I.S.E. gives volunteers the opportunity to meet and connect with the families receiving their assistance, which is an incredible experience for everyone involved in the construction of the modified home. 

For example, the Foundation holds “Walls of Honor” events where volunteers and donors can come and leave a handwritten note on the home’s frame before the drywall is installed. This special moment is shared by both the family and those who made the home possible and leaves a lasting impression to dedicate the home. To be able to help someone who has sacrificed, in many cases everything for our freedom is admirable and deserves to be honored, which Hammond states is a big reason why Natural Stone Institute initially got involved and has continued to work closely with the program. 

Since then, Hammond states that the overall reaction to their partnership in the R.I.S.E. program has been overwhelmingly positive. “I often hear from our members who have been involved in a project that the fact is these men and women have sacrificed so much, so we can do what we do every day. By giving back, whether it’s through a contribution of material or service, or if it’s volunteering their time and talent to help make the stone possible in their home, they believe it’s the least that they can do.” 

Helping Heroes 

Every one of the 61 homes built through the R.I.S.E. program has a unique story behind it. In addition to involving multiple contractors, planners, and designers in the process, bringing together a complete home adapted for disabilities and special needs is no easy feat. There are a number of additional considerations that go into the planning and execution of a specially adapted home. For example, explains Hammond, “ if they have certain physical limitations and require physical therapy, homes may be constructed in close proximity to a specific medical center or facility needed for their ongoing medical care.” 

R.I.S.E. homes have been built across the United States, which means logistics is always a difficult consideration when bringing these homes to life. However, this can sometimes lead to heartwarming and even serendipitous results. In one home build that Hammond worked on with Natural Stone Institute, not only was the recipient’s father the contractor that helped construct the home, but the home was actually constructed on a piece of land that had been part of the original family homestead. Though it had been parceled up and developed over the years, this particular lot had remained unsold, which ended up being the perfect spot to build a home for his son after his unfortunate injury years later. 

In another project, the recipient wanted to live closer to his parents so they could help him with his new challenges. The Foundation was able to get him pretty close, too— they moved him in right next door! It’s easy to tell Hammond loves sharing stories like these, which clearly demonstrate the many ways the R.I.S.E. program not only helps veterans and first responders but their families as well. 

Want to Get Involved? 

There are many ways to help both the Gary Sinise Foundation and Natural Stone Institute make the R.I.S.E. initiatives a reality. For those interested in donating time, funds, or materials to the Gary Sinise Foundation or to the R.I.S.E. program specifically, instructions on how to make a financial contribution, support a gift, and designate where you would like that gift to be used can be found on their website https://www.garysinisefoundation.org/. When it comes to the Natural Stone Institute specifically, there is much to be done to help. If you’re a member of the Natural Stone Institute, you can contact Pam Hammond directly for more information and get involved at pam@naturalstoneinstitute.org. 

Looking forward to next year, the Natural Stone Institute is always looking to grow and expand their reach and impact through the R.I.S.E. program. Though a long waiting list and limited resources have hindered efforts, the program is still relatively new and continuing to grow. As of this writing, the R.I.S.E. Operations Team has grown from one to three with plans to continue to grow in the future. In the words of Hammond herself, when it comes to the number of veterans, first responders, and their families that can benefit from their efforts, “the sky’s the limit.” 

@Natural Stone Institute
#UseNaturalStone 

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