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Nonprofit helps restore widow’s home

(Enrique Garcia/Contributor)
Gean LeVar kicks off the welcome ceremony as she cuts the strand of red ribbon outside of her home.

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Bands of law enforcement, first responders, veterans and volunteers came together in the sweltering morning heat and sang “God Bless the USA.”

Among the crowd stood homeowner Gean LeVar, the widow of a Navy veteran, who was witnessing the unveiling of her home after an 18-month renovation.

The white home, which had American flags strewn along the trim and streamers wrapped around the columns, was LeVar’s childhood home and where she lived with her husband. After her husband died in January 2021, the house was condemned and the nonprofit Operation Enduring Gratitude stepped in to assist LeVar.

“When her husband passed away, she called 911 and they condemned the house,” said Toni Wallis, a volunteer with Operation Enduring Gratitude. “Excessive collecting is what they are calling it. So then that night, a police officer got involved and then our organization and the city of Glendale volunteered to help.”

LeVar lived at her neighbor’s house while volunteers worked to transform her home. Operation Enduring Gratitude, an organization dedicated to rebuilding veterans’ homes across the Valley, worked alongside various companies and members of the city of Glendale to restore LeVar’s house.

“We stripped all the plaster off the house,” said Charlie Ellis, a contractor and founder of Operation Enduring Gratitude. “We pulled the plumbing, the electrical, the air conditioning, and the flooring and ceiling. There was literally very little insulation in the ceiling.”

Ellis said the entire house needed work and the materials for the home were donated by different organizations and community members. Many contractors who worked on the home contributed money “out of their own pockets” and reached out to their supply houses and vendors for contributions.

“When everybody finds out what we’re doing, they want to help,” Ellis said.

Ellis founded Operation Enduring Gratitude in 2014 after he saw a lack of assistance for veterans in need. Ellis was volunteering with the Maryvale Revitalization Corp. when he was asked to replace a door in a veteran’s home.

“When I got there, I noticed that the house was in enormous disrepair,” Ellis said. “I asked the executive director there if we could do more, and he asked me what I wanted to do. I said, ‘Let’s rebuild the whole thing.’”

Shortly after Ellis finished that project, he created Operation Enduring Gratitude. In addition to home makeovers, the organization installs wheelchair ramps and hot water replacements, repairs homes and renovates bathrooms to make them more accessible for veterans.

The volunteer-based organization, which has renovated eight homes since it was founded, continues to collaborate with other groups to gain the materials and manpower needed for each project.

“It takes a lot of effort, and it’s a lot of drain on resources,” Wallis said. “So, getting help from the community, from all of these different contractors and organizations, is invaluable. If we didn’t have the group of volunteers, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do.”

Ellis said he utilizes social media and hashtags to recruit volunteers and discover veterans in need of his services. Although Ellis said many veterans come to them for help, he said it is particularly challenging to find veterans in need of wheelchair ramps due to varying “resistance levels” of veterans.

“They don’t come out of the woods because I think they’re embarrassed or ashamed,” Ellis said. “It’s very difficult to make that happen.”

After 18 months of work on LeVar’s home, Ellis was excited to see “the look of surprise” on LeVar’s face when her home and the crowd of volunteers were revealed to her.

“She hasn’t seen everybody together, and that will be the shock,” Ellis said. “The game plan is to get them all standing up here in the grass.”

When the moment for the reveal arrived on Wednesday, a massive bus delivered LeVar back home. The bus parked in front of her home as LeVar stepped off it and members from Operation Enduring Gratitude, veterans, local businesses and other volunteers gathered in anticipation on the other side.

The crowd cheered as the bus rolled away and LeVar was welcomed back to her childhood home with a brief prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance, a flag-raising ceremony, and recorded music from Lee Greenwood.

LeVar toured her home that was decorated with a banner, balloons and streamers. The kitchen’s pantry doors are her favorite addition to the newly renovated home, and she said she is looking forward to trying out her new kitchen.

“I want Operation Enduring Gratitude to know how much I appreciate them,” LeVar said. “And I think they did a great job.”

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