photos by Julia Robinson, provided by the Gary Sinise Foundation

The Gary Sinise Foundation builds fully customized, specially adapted smart homes for our wounded veterans across the U.S.

Getting up to turn on the lights, walking through a narrow hallway, taking a shower. These are things most people take for granted. But for some, daily activities like these require extra effort or assistance.

There’s a population in our country that has sacrificed for our freedom — their time, relationships, even limbs. Our wounded veterans, many still very young, deserve the freedom and independence they fought so hard for.

Operation Tyler

In 2011, Scott Schaeperkoetter was having dinner with his parents when he came across a news article announcing the return of Tyler Huffman, a local Marine, to Jeff City.

Schaeperkoetter was inspired by Joe Twehous’ land donation to Tyler and the involvement of the Gary Sinise Foundation. All that was needed was community support and labor to give this deserving veteran a comfortable home. “I’ve never served in the military, but I have a tremendous amount of respect for our military,” Schaeperkoetter says. “So, I called Joe that night and told him I want to be involved.”

Donating their time, Schaeperkoetter and his team set to work. “I really thought this was an area where I could use my God-given talents to help someone,” he says.

The Gary Sinise Foundation

After a flight to L.A. and a visit to the set of Sinise’s show, “CSI: New York,” Schaeperkoetter met with Judy Otter, Gary Sinise Foundation’s Executive Director, and explained to her the reason behind Operation Tyler’s success: community generosity.

“I was a little star struck at first, I’ll be honest,” says Schaeperkoetter, “but after that they called me back and asked if I wanted to start overseeing some other projects they were doing across the country. For a few years I served as Project Manager and was then brought on as Director of Operations for the R.I.S.E. program. R.I.S.E. (Restoring Independence Supporting Empowerment) builds specially adapted smart homes for severely wounded veterans. Utilizing Gary’s passion, and under the supervision of Judy, I’ve been able to help grow and develop the R.I.S.E. team.”

“Scott has been crucial to the success of the Gary Sinise Foundation’s R.I.S.E. program,” Otter writes in an email. “He has put together an amazing team. They are extremely effective. With his supervision, we’ve been able to increase the number of homes completed per year. This has allowed us to increase the number of home applicants accepted into the program as well. He’s also helped steward our corporate and national in-kind partners, contractors, and builders for each home, which has helped with in-kind donations, bringing the cost of each home down. This means we’re able to help even more injured heroes and continue to pay it forward.”

Schaeperkoetter speaks at length about Sinise’s passion for what he does — it’s a passion the two share.

The Homes

From contracting to interior design, the Gary Sinise Foundation R.I.S.E. program builds mortgage free, fully customized specially adapted smart homes for each veteran and their family. On average, Schaeperkoetter and his team build 10 to 12 homes per year. “These are truly custom homes,” Schaeperkoetter says. “We start the process over every time. We have to hire a new builder, hire a new architect, find land that the veteran actually wants to live on. Our goal is for them to be able or want to live there forever.”

The primary goal of this program is for the veterans to have independence in their own home. “For most people, our homes are a retreat,” says Schaeperkoetter. “It’s where we feel most comfortable, relaxed. It’s the exact opposite for these guys. They go home and it’s just as much of a challenge there as it is anywhere else. We want to make it so they don’t have to think too far in advance about their morning or what they’ll do when they get home. They can just live.

“It takes a village to be able to support our wounded veteran community because there are just so many out there,” he continues. “I think the big difference between the Gary Sinise Foundation and some of the other amazing organizations that build homes is that we really build a custom home. We spend a lot of time up-front with those veterans to understand their needs and challenges in their current home. We want them to be very involved in the process. We ask them where they want to live, what design they prefer, and much more.”

The “smart” technology is one of the biggest ways this goal is achieved. Some examples of this technology and other construction features are smartphone- and tablet-controlled lighting; smartphone-controlled locks and security cameras; zone-controlled thermostats (amputees tend to run hot, so their homes tend to run very cold); audio and video throughout the entire house (many veterans utilize audio therapy); large bathrooms with room for wheelchairs and completely accessible showers; wide hallways; open floor plans; and single-level homes.
The success of programs like this lies in the people who work on them. It takes a special passion and drive to commit so much of your time and energy to help others. Otter says: “Something in particular I remember is how passionate and inspired [Scott] was after working on Tyler Huffman’s home and how that’s carried over on all the homes he’s managed for us. Working with Scott, it’s evident that he cares deeply for each defender and their family. He is truly committed to them through the home building process, and that commitment and compassion continues even after the veterans are in their homes. Scott doesn’t just look at this job as building a house — he sees it as providing these families, who have already sacrificed so much, an opportunity to heal and achieve new dreams.”