Putting truck back on street also might help get homeless vets off street
DANVILLE — Mike McBride and Bryce Proffitt's eyes lit up when they learned about the assignment in their drive train class at Danville Area Community College — helping to restore a vintage Chevy pickup truck.
They nearly teared up at the next part: The restoration project — an effort involving some 200 volunteers so far — had been taken on to get local veterans off of the streets and into safe, affordable housing.
McBride, an Army veteran, worked with homeless vets at the Department of Veterans Affairs Illiana Healthcare System in Danville for several years. Prior to that, he'd come close to being homeless himself.
Proffitt is a member of the Illinois Army National Guard's 1455th Transportation Company based in Paris, Ill. The Dyess, Ark., native lived on the streets for about eight months shortly after moving to Danville in 2009.
"I wouldn't wish that on anyone. I don't care how bad of a person you are," said Proffitt, who "couch hopped" at homes of people who took him in and slept outside, mostly in the woods, "more times than I could count" during that time. "Everyone deserves a place to live."
The Homeward Bound Patriot Truck restoration project calls for fully restoring a 1954 Chevrolet 3100 five-window truck, then raffling off the hot rod at the Midwest Veterans Association's annual Thunder Ride motorcycle ride, set for Aug. 2. All of the proceeds will go to various organizations that assist homeless veterans.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that 57,849 veterans are homeless on any given night, said Rachael Dietkus-Miller, the VA Illiana's Homeless Veterans Program coordinator. She added that over the course of the year, twice that number experience some episode of homelessness.
"There is a heavy concentration of Vietnam-era veterans, but we work with veterans from every single era and from every branch of service, too," Dietkus-Miller said, adding that the number of younger veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and came home to a depressed economy, has grown. "We're also seeing a lot of veterans who are extreme high risk of being homeless."
The restoration officially kicked off in mid-August and has reached its halfway point, organizers announced recently.
"We're right on track," said project organizer Gary Knight, who hopes to unveil the finished product at the Department of Veterans Affairs Illiana Healthcare System's car show on Memorial Day weekend before taking it out on this summer's classic car show and parade circuit.
From clunker to classic
A year ago, Knight, the president of Carmack Car Capitol and a classic car enthusiast, was watching a collectors' auction on TV when he got the idea for the project.
"I didn't serve, so I feel this project is a way to give back," said Knight, whose business has been a major sponsor of the annual Thunder Ride event, which was established a few years ago to raise awareness about homelessness among veterans and funds to help.
After getting the go-ahead from the Midwest Veterans Association, Knight began peeking behind old barns and peering into garages looking for a fixer-upper with no luck. Then a few months later while getting a haircut, his barber, who rebuilds old cars and trucks, told him about the Chevy.
The dull gray-colored truck, then owned by Tee Pak Credit Union, had been sitting in a junkyard in pieces, "looking like a pile of junk," Knight recalled. When the credit union board learned about Knight's idea, it donated the vehicle for the project.
"It's a very unique vehicle," Knight said, adding that model was built only one year. "What makes it neat is the five-window cab. And the '54 is the only year they used this style of grille."
Knight and Susan Gutterridge, the veterans association's founder, were pleased when 20 to 25 people showed up at an organization meeting last August, offering their expertise. Mike Shutes, Chuck Shikany and Steve Tucker were named the project leaders.
Shutes, an instructor for DACC's auto mechanics program, made the project part of his curriculum last semester.
"I was teaching steering and suspension and brakes. I thought it would be a great learning experience for them, and that's what it's been," he said. "Everyone understands what it's for and has taken a lot of interest in it."
Shutes; about 30 students, including Proffitt, McBride and other veterans; and welding instructors Bob Skinner and Don Sherman, a Vietnam veteran, all had a hand in the project. They completely disassembled the vehicle and rebuilt the brake, steering and suspension systems. A few students wrapped up their portion in early January.
"When it came to us, it was just ugly," Shutes said. "We cleaned it up and make it look like what people expect a street rod to look like."
After the welding work was finished, the truck was sent to a Bismarck business, which powder-coated the chassis.
Meanwhile, Shikany, with the help of Phil's Automotive Machine Shop in Danville, rebuilt the engine — a 408-cubic Chevy motor, putting out about 380 horsepower — and carburetor.
"I'm a real gear head. And my dad was in World War II and my brother was in the military, so I have a lot of respect for veterans," Shikany said. "A few of us are going to see this project through to the end. I can't wait to see how it turns out."
The next step is the body and paint work, which will be done by Tucker at Ultra Auto Body in Westville.
"It's going to be a really nice set of wheels, really sharp," Knight said. "I can't wait to get behind the wheel and drive it in parades."
Proud to help
When it's finished, the truck will be red with a tan leather interior. It will have the classic truck look — including a 1954 grille, found recently in Mississippi — with power steering and brakes, cruise control, turn signals, heat and air conditioning, a tilted steering column, a stereo and "all of the modern stuff you want," Knight said.
Shutes estimated that type of restoration would have cost between $30,000 and $50,000, depending on where the work was done. Gutterridge said this project will cost a fraction of that.
"I've been humbled by people's generosity. So many have provided the labor for free donated some of the parts, materials, supplies or made financial donations," she said. "I know this winter, I've had a hard time sleeping at night knowing there are men and women who fought for our country, who may not have made it into a shelter. That they're out there on the streets that should never happen."
The only people who might be more eager to see the finished product than Knight are the veterans who helped restore it.
"The way it was when it first came in, I didn't think it had a chance," said David Hassinger, an Army vet who came to Danville from Mattoon. Recently, he and the other vets got to see the engine mounted in the frame at DACC's automotive lab before it was moved to Westville.
George King of Westville served in the Army from 1975-78 and in the National Guard from 1979-92. During part of that time, he served in a six-member reconnaissance unit, where the sixth member who trailed the group watched the others' backs.
"Being able to work on this project goes back to that saying, 'We've got your six,'" he said.
McBride, of Danville, who also is getting his associate degree, worked with homeless vets as the house manager at the VA Illiana's substance abuse program. He helped them write resumes and search for jobs, among other things.
"They're not a bunch of slackers," McBride said of the vets he worked with, pointing out some of them had a disability, a lack of education or had lost their job. In other cases, other "life circumstances" caused them to become homeless.
"Getting this assistance is first step in helping them get their feet back on the ground," he said. "Their sense of security and self-esteem will go back up, so they can get a job and get back into the workforce. That's what they want."
How to help
Organizers still need donations and some 1954 Chevrolet 3100 truck parts to complete the Homeward Bound Patriot Truck restoration project.
For more information, call Susan Gutterridge, of the Midwest Veterans Association, at 840-9591, or email her at email@example.com.
Donations for the project can be sent to Midwest Veterans Association Inc., P.O. Box 238, Bismarck, IL, 61814. All donations are tax deductible.