TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — As a calvary scout, Dustin Everhart was the “eyes and ears” of the U.S. Army, keeping his comrades up to date on battlefield conditions.
Years after returning home, Everhart is among a group of local veterans working to open a resource center where retired military personnel would help former soldiers readjust to the civilian world.
Such a place, he said, would’ve helped him manage a post-combat life that was complicated by a failing marriage, lack of strong employment skills and illegal drugs.
“And knowing at this point I could give back to guys that are way worse off than I ever was… has given me a feeling of fulfillment and accomplishment that only God can provide,” said Everhart, who served in the military from 1999-2003.
Dubbed “Community Outpost Lazarus,” the resource center is the next mission of the Faithful Veteran Guide Detachment Ministry at Terre Haute United Methodist Temple.
Members are finishing their latest pig hunting trip in Texas, four-day excursions geared toward building camaraderie and allowing veterans to put their combat training to practical use.
The ministry also conducts walkabouts providing essentials to Terre Haute’s homeless community.
A resource center would serve as a “nexus” for building diverse community relationships and provide a welcoming place, said Elias Donker, a retired Army major who served in Iraq and is overseeing the plans. It’s exactly what Christians are led to do, he added.
The group has its sights on the former home of Youngstown United Methodist Church, which closed June 26 after more than 130 years of service. Youngstown’s property reverts back to the United Methodist’s state conference and a district-level committee will decide its fate.
Ministry members want to maintain the sanctity of the church, which sits at Bono Road and Dallas Drive south of Terre Haute. Plans call for preserving the sanctuary as a place of worship.
Donker himself played piano for the church during college.
“You walk in the place and it looks like it’s still from 1920, and that’s awesome,” he said. “It’s beautiful. So it’s a privilege to find a way to take this building that’s not functioning as a church and use it in a way that preserves that heritage and functions in a new way that helps enhance the community.”
The ministry gathers at Temple weekly to discuss the plans. Seated a picnic table in the backyard garden near a cackling campfire one recent evening, Donker began to sketch on a pad of paper.
He diagrammed Youngstown’s sanctuary, filling in rows of pews and drawing the center aisle. The design scheme raises alarms for the security-minded group: congregants sat with their backs to the doors.
Donker wants to reconfigure the seating by pulling out a quadrant of pews and replace them with chairs angled for a view of the entrance. A few of the pews would be sold as custom pieces to help cover expenses.
Other parts of the building would be converted to provide vocational counseling and other services. Members also want to allow other military organizations to use the space. The center would be staffed around-the-clock to answer hotline calls and open the building for veterans in need.
The concept is based on the military’s remote outposts where troops stand guard against unexpected attacks. Lazarus is a Biblical reference to the restoration of life.
Having veterans run the center brings a “voice of experience” to the project, said Sarah Heath, a former Air Force captain, who is offering spiritual guidance through the process.
“And being able to say, ‘Hey, I’ve been there, I did that, I know what you went through,’“ she added.
The ministry is tapping in to the resources of Launch Terre Haute to help craft a business plan.
“We are in the process now of identifying the audience, so we can certainly feed individuals that we come in contact with that might need additional resources that we’re not able to offer down to the new facility and vice-versa,” said executive director Shelley Klingerman, who attended the meeting.
By July 31, Donker said, the ministry aims to have a finished plan ready to present to the church’s conference.
It wouldn’t be the first time a defunct church was repurposed into a community center. In 2001, the 14th and Chestnut Community Center opened in the building formerly occupied by Terre Haute First United Methodist.
Temple Pastor Kevin Drane, who also listened to Donker’s plans, said the resource center would give veterans a place to call home.
“I think there are a lot of veterans who, for whatever reason, feel like they don’t necessarily have the support,” he said.
Retired Marine Bryce Rogers, who left the service last fall after 13 years, is another veteran involved in the planning.
In a society with high rates of suicide, homelessness and criminal activity among veterans, Rogers said the center will provide the family-type support necessary while transitioning from the military
“They didn’t enlist so they could become a part of a larger gang or become a part of a criminal ring,” he said. “They enlisted to do something that was greater than themselves, to be a part of something that mattered – that had eternal value.”