Shoreview community comes together to help Army vet and wife

Blake Huffman (second from left) and Alan Duff (far right) join other members of the SAHI build for Thomas and Sonja Koop at the site of the couple’s future home. The group ceremoniously shoveled dirt at a celebration July 6 to ark the start of the house’s construction, which will begin July 13. (photo courtesy of Blake Huffman)
Blake Huffman (second from left) and Alan Duff (far right) join other members of the SAHI build for Thomas and Sonja Koop at the site of the couple’s future home. The group ceremoniously shoveled dirt at a celebration July 6 to ark the start of the house’s construction, which will begin July 13. (photo courtesy of Blake Huffman)

For many military veterans in the United States, it can be difficult to adjust back into society after their service because of physical injuries and mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Thomas Koop and his wife Sonja know these difficulties all too well.

Koop served in the U.S. Army and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after he served for six years, spending 15 months of that service deployed in Afghanistan. Afterwards, he was unable to land a job, which left he and Sonja homeless, until someone offered to build them a house.

Blake Huffman is the founder of Shoreview Area Housing Initiative, an organization that provides affordable housing to low-income families that are homeless, victims of domestic abuse or military veterans.

Huffman, Ramsey County Commissioner for District 1 and a former longtime Shoreview city council member, is managing a SAHI project that will build a new home for the Koops.

"Our whole goal here is getting people back to where they need to [be]," Huffman said of SAHI.

Many corporate and nonprofit organizations have come together to raise funds and will help build the first SAHI house to be constructed from scratch, Huffman said.

About 50 of those sponsors and supporters came together on July 6 with Huffman and the Koops at the site of their future house, Huffman said. They celebrated the start of the house’s construction with a groundbreaking; Huffman said construction would officially begin July 13 and likely finish next spring.

"It was an emotional day," Huffman said after the celebration. "The fact that these men and women could give time away to the ceremony, and more importantly give time and service away to help build a house, is a pretty powerful message."

Perfect timing

Sonja Koop said she feels like she and her husband won the lottery because of everything that Huffman and the other sponsors have done for them.

"We had nowhere to go," Sonja said. "It was very hard mentally and emotionally for [our] new marriage. For us to be in that position and just to have this happening is perfect timing."

The timing is especially perfect, she added, because she and Koop are expecting their first child in September.

Alan Duff, a retired Army major and president of Duff Consulting LLC, helped find the Koops through his military veteran networks and felt a need to help the young family.

"I go back to this really being a family issue more than just a soldier issue," Duff said.

Duff said he cried after he met the Koops because he was so happy to be able to help them.

"I remember first meeting them," Duff said of the Koops. "They’re like, 'Well why are we so lucky to win this?' And I said, 'Well, it’s your lucky day. Thank you for your service, and America is here to help you get back on your feet again.'"

More than a house

Help came quickly for the Koops. Within a week of Duff and Huffman's first meeting with Koop and his wife, they had a temporary SAHI house, a car, and he had a job.

Shaun Riffe was Koop's commander in the Army and said he offered him a job at his new company, Junk360, just a few miles from the Koops' temporary home. Riffe also helped Duff and Huffman find the Koops.

"This kind of gives him a leg-up to not have to worry about what’s next in life," Riffe said of Koop. "He can be stable for a while and focus on his family."

Riffe said Duff approached him and asked if he knew a military veteran who needed a home in Shoreview.

"[Koop] was the first person who came to mind," Riffe said. "I saw Tom go through a lot and put a lot of time back into getting himself better, and [the house is] just something that he deserved."

It takes a village

Huffman said SAHI has received over $100,000 in private donations for the Koops' new house, and he expects many more donations will come.

The construction costs of the house are estimated at about $250,000, Huffman said, but it will cost SAHI less than that because many companies will construct parts of the house for free.

For example, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers will install the home's electrical system, and students from construction classes at Saint Paul College will do most of the carpentry work for the house, Huffman said.

Builders will also install geothermal technology to heat and cool the house, along with other energy-saving appliances and insulation, to keep monthly housing costs at a minimum, Huffman said.

SAHI will cover much of the house's mortgage and monthly payments, while the Koops will pay SAHI one third of their total income each month as long as they stay in the house, Huffman said. If the Koops move out of the house, Huffman said SAHI plans to find another military veteran to live in it.

The house will be handicap accessible to accommodate future military veterans who might have physical disabilities, Huffman said.

"It's a win on so many different fronts," Huffman said of the housing project. "If you judge a community by how they take care of those in need, I feel really good about where I live."

Sonja said through all of the ups and downs she and her husband have been through, the support that SAHI and others have provided has brought a much-needed peace to their life.

"Words can't describe how grateful we are for all of this and the wonderful people we're meeting," Sonja said.

Danielle Korby can be reached at 651-748-7824 or staffwriter@lillienews.com. Follow her on twitter @daniellejean701.

 

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