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As soon as the first was finished, he knew he had to do more.
Charlie Ellis hadn’t left the site of his first home revitalization project, a complete home rebuild for a Maryvale woman in her 70s, before he started plotting ways to do another.
Between toothy grins and happy tears at the completion celebration, he turned to a friend and asked why there wasn’t a group doing the same work for veterans. His friend replied, “Because you haven’t started it,” Ellis said.
So Ellis, a National Guard veteran, founded Operation Enduring Gratitude. That was five years ago, in April 2014.
“I know what it is like to come home and return to civilian life,” said Ellis, a self-employed contractor. “I wanted to make sure the veterans feel home, but not forgotten.”
Since its launch, Ellis and a team of supporters have been busy serving the local veteran community.
“It’s nothing but grinding — finding solutions and finding answers,” he said.
Operation Enduring Gratitude completes every project with donated materials and time. Everyone involved is a volunteer, and almost all materials are donated by a group of loyal businesses.
“The community will respond if we give them confidence in our capacity,” Ellis said.
Next recipient: Army vet in Glendale
The organization has rebuilt three houses and built 50 concrete wheelchair ramps across the Valley.
Completion of the organization’s fourth house, for Gilbert Lopez, a 76-year-old U.S. Army veteran in Glendale, is in sight.
Rebecca Ontiveros has known Lopez her whole life. Before her dad passed away in 2013, Lopez was his roommate.
Lopez has been living in a shell of a home a few streets over from Ontiveros for the past few years, she said. She felt called to find someone to help him fix his house, so she contacted the Glendale Chamber of Commerce in February. The chamber connected her to Operation Enduring Gratitude after verifying that Lopez was a veteran.
“His whole entire life he has been at service to someone and their needs, and now all of his needs are being met by others,” Ontiveros said, adding even Glendale Mayor Jerry Weiers stepped up to support the project.
Operation Enduring Gratitude organizes a team of volunteers nearly every weekend. Ellis said they hope to finish Lopez’s house by the Fourth of July.
“It is so surreal,” Ontiveros said. “To watch everyone come together and have so much brotherly love for a fellow veteran warms my heart.”
Lopez’s home will be a place for his kids and grandkids to come visit, Ontiveros said — it will be his legacy.
A focus on wheelchair ramps
Rebuilding houses takes months, sometimes years, so Ellis said wheelchair ramp construction is another way the organization helps serve the veteran community.
That takes a lot of brains and a lot of back, but a lot less time, Ellis said.
These projects also have a personal pull — Ellis’ father, a World War II and Pearl Harbor survivor, was in a wheelchair when Ellis was a teenager.
Alan Gaugert, Operation Enduring Gratitude chairman and a U.S. Air Force veteran, said each construction project has to be carefully choreographed.
“It’s a dance,” he said. “It’s about being in the right place at the right time and connecting to the right people.”
Ellis likened the process to the branches of the military — each group has a very specific role, but they all cross over to reach one shared goal.
Coordinating donated materials, services and volunteers to work in conjunction at multiple locations may be challenging, but Ellis said the hardest part of the process is identifying the veterans who need help.
In the military, people are taught self-reliance and taking pride in the uniform, but Ellis said the same mentality that led to success during service can be harmful in civilian life because nobody will ask for help.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” he said. “The pride got us to the pinnacle of our career is the pride that keeps us independent. And, sometimes, we can’t do it all ourselves.”
Ellis relies on his network of other veteran-centered organizations and social media to find those who need the services. He said he hopes by building relationships with local politicians and continuing community outreach, he can expand the reach of the organization.
He wants Operation Enduring Gratitude to grow nationally in five years, Ellis said.
He admitted it’s a hefty aspiration, but Operation Enduring Gratitude was built on lofty goals.
The Secret Santa that started it all
Maryvale Revitalization Corporation, commonly referred to as MRC, had reached out to Ellis to help out on a home improvement project.
Ellis has been in construction his whole life. Swinging hammers is his thing, as he said.
He started before he turned 10 after his neighbor caught him playing in the construction site of the custom home the family was building, he said. After that, his neighbor put him to work, and he made a few dollars on Saturdays moving lumber.
Aside from his six-year stint in the National Guard after turning 18 and another four years when he was 43, he has been working as a contractor.
“I always wanted to take the trade that life handed me and use it to help people,” Ellis said, so when MRC asked him to lend a hand, Ellis was quick to jump in.
As soon as he got to the house, he saw that there was a lot more than needed to be done.
The woman had just a hollow frame of a home, Ellis said. You could see the inside of the roof from her bedroom, and a Home Depot bucket replaced piping under her kitchen sink, he said.
Ellis said he suggested they rebuild her whole home and took charge when MRC gave him the go-ahead.
The community rallied around the project. “I invited anybody who was gullible enough to work on a project with me to my meetings,” Ellis said.
Church friends would take her out to lunch, so Ellis and a network of about 100 other volunteers could plan for the home makeover without her knowing. It was a Secret Santa project.
“We would break into her home, but all we would steal was measurements,” he said with a sneaky grin.
MRC, with the help of Ellis and a slew of other dedicated volunteers and organizations, successfully surprised the woman with a new home in a matter of months.
Little did Ellis know, when he finished her home, he was really just getting started.
New program for younger vets
In addition to building houses and ramps, Operation Enduring Gratitude plans to partner with two other Valley nonprofits, Rebuilding Together Valley of the Sun and West-MEC School District to create a five-month job training program for veterans interested in a career in construction. It’s called Operation (Re)boot.
Veterans will be trained in a range of employable construction skills and will have opportunities to meet with career service counselors and interview with top construction companies in the Valley after completing the program.
The first class will start as soon as they can get enough participants, Ellis said.
“We hope to give them a head start, so the rest of their career is up to them,” Ellis said, adding Operation Enduring Gratitude projects would be a great way to put their new skills to work.
Veterans serving veterans
Ellis never planned to get rich as a contractor, and definitely not as a nonprofit director, but he said he builds his kingdom with every project Operation Enduring Gratitude completes.
“You get up early, you stay up late, you’re frustrated, you’re disappointed, you’re happy — you have the full roller coaster of emotions. But when the roller coaster comes in, everyone is full grins,” he said. “It’s the best ride of my life every time.”