NASHVILLE, Tennessee — When U.S. Army veteran Chris Stout and his service dog Tom visited St. Edward School in Nashville March 6, the students and faculty felt like they were meeting real-life superheroes.
And when two students presented Stout, founder of the Veterans Community Project — an organization that works to eliminate homelessness among veterans — with a check for more than $1,000 from their bake sale profits, they couldn’t help but also give him a hug.
St. Edward’s middle school students were introduced to Stout last year through watching “CNN 10,” a 10-minute digital news show, and seeing him introduced as a finalist for the program’s 2018 Heroes contest.
The students immediately connected with Stout and his Kansas City, Missouri-based group, which builds houses for homeless veterans and links them with vital services.
Kemi Tela, the school’s student council president, wrote to Stout and offered the school’s support for his work. She and her classmates led school-wide initiatives, including the bake sale, to raise awareness and donations. They also led a voting campaign in hopes that the Veterans Community Project would win the $100,000 grand prize from “CNN 10.”
Although his organization didn’t win the vote, it gained a large following by being featured on the program.
“Schools are really important to us,” Stout told the Tennessee Register, newspaper of the Nashville Diocese. “If the kids are passionate about something, the parents are too.”
Stout, who was injured in Afghanistan and returned home with PTSD, felt a calling to help veterans in need connect quickly with services, removing as many barriers as possible. “We figure things out for people,” he said of the Veterans Community Project.
After the exposure on the CNN program, the Veterans Community Project has become well-known nationally for its tiny house program, but it also offers a host of other services for homeless veterans, including bus passes, a food pantry and more.
When homeless veterans, some of whom have lived on the streets or in the woods for more than 15 years, gain stable housing, it can be transformational, Stout said. Veterans are often reluctant to go to a shelter, which can be noisy and chaotic and not allow pets or other family members, Stout said. “They love the safety, the sense of ownership they have with the tiny houses.”
By clustering the veterans’ tiny houses together, centered around a community center, “we help them learn how to live in a community, how to cook, clean, take care of a house,” he said.
The tiny houses also have enabled some formerly homeless veterans to reconnect with family members, even regain custody of their children in some instances.
The Veterans Community Project plans to expand to five other U.S. cities in 2019, and Stout is actively working to add Nashville to the list. So far, it has been challenging to sell the tiny house village idea to enough council members to move forward, he said, but he is not giving up. “We want this to be a city project,” he said. “We want to meet the needs of the community.”
Stout thanked the St. Edward students for their support and encouraged them to engage in service. He told them that he knew he wanted to build tiny houses, but didn’t have any construction experience, so he watched YouTube videos and learned.
“You won’t get everything right at first,” he said with a laugh. “If you see a need in the community, don’t be afraid to address it.”
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Laurence is a staff writer for the Tennessee Register, newspaper of the Diocese of Nashville.