Alternative living option nears for veterans

The entrance to Camp Alma, a new veterans wellness center aimed at helping those with PTSD transition back into society.

About an hour’s drive west from Cottage Grove, the snaking forest byway of Siuslaw River Road briefly unfurls into a treeless pasture where a former inmate work camp has turned into a haven for veterans in need.

The camp, dubbed Camp Alma, is a recent purchase by the local nonprofit Veterans Legacy. The group’s executive director Dan Buckwald has spearheaded its revival in a befitting return to the camp he’d served at for 13 years as a corrections officer.

“I’m a little connected out here,” he said, pointing to trees he’d transplanted in 1994. “So for me I get to retire after 29 years at the sheriff’s office and come back home.”

Veterans Legacy received its nonprofit status in 2016 with a mission to provide veterans with a safe, supportive environment for healing and eventual reintegration into their communities. The group takes aim at veteran issues such as suicide, homelessness and unemployment by addressing afflictions such as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse and associated traumas.

At Camp Alma, the group is taking a unique and visionary treatment approach, stressing “therapeutic agriculture” and construction projects which are intended to lead wayward veterans down a skill-driven path of personal ownership and agency.

“This is going to be an opportunity for people to find themselves and develop their own growth with assistance,” said Buckwald.

Though plenty of work will remain to be done when Camp Alma opens its doors, Buckwald estimates they are set to have core facilities up and running in about two months’ time for the initial entry of five veterans.

“We’re really close,” Buckwald said. “We need a dormitory, we need a kitchen and we need a laundry room. And we’re pretty close to each one of those.”

The first five residents of the camp will be carefully picked.

“We want to be able to build the community off them,” said Buckwald.

The nonprofit is looking particularly for homeless veterans in Lane County who will commit to a tiny housing program which will see the construction 10 tiny homes over 12 months.

As the operation matures, plans are to increase the resident occupancy to 50. The 105-acre plot of land features a complex consisting of dormitories, a kitchen and dining area, a lounge, a library and laundry facilities amid a serene, pastoral setting.

The camp will offer skills in gardening, food preparation, food preservation, construction, maintenance, basic financial management and job interviewing.

In setting veterans up for post-camp reintegration, Veterans Legacy plans to help with preparation for employment, job training, forming business plans and planning higher education.

From work camp to 

veteran housing

The work camp first began operating in 1990 under the auspices of the Lane County Sheriff’s Office and, besides a two-year shutdown from 1995 to 1997, the camp provided a rural work setting for county inmates until 2008.

Buckwald, originally from Mapleton, returned to Lane County in 1988 from a stint with the Air Force and was hard-pressed to find a meaningful direction in his life. After working his way through some basic labor jobs, Buckwald found employment with the sheriff’s office, working in corrections.

In 1991, Buckwald came to Camp Alma, which was known as the Sheriff’s Office Forest Work Camp at the time. He soon learned that inmates coming through the camp had talents and skills.

“Going through the files out here, I found out all my guys had been convicted of growing marijuana,” Buckwald said. “So I made them my gardeners.”

In assigning inmates to work he thought would fit them, Buckwald found that they would often put in 10 or 12 hours a day.

“Not because I made them, but because they took that ownership,” he said.

At its peak occupancy, the Forest Work Camp was a 100-inmate operation filled with inmates whose crimes were relatively minor.

“It was a lot of the smaller stuff,” said Buckwald. “It was driving without a license, DUIIs, probation violations, thefts, forgeries — that type of stuff.”

Conceptually, in approaching the issues of the men remanded at the camp, Buckwald believed strongly in giving second chances and providing pathways to error-correct, positioning people so that they might right themselves.

“I truly believe that some people don’t get arrested, they get rescued,” he said. “But not everybody who comes to jail needs to stay in jail, either.”

The camp was known to provide community benefits as well. For the Whiteaker Free Community Thanksgiving Day Dinner, an annual neighborhood feed in Eugene for those in need, inmates provided desserts.

“These guys probably made about 3,000 cookies and they loved doing it because they loved giving back,” Buckwald said. “There was nothing else like it. Nothing.”

Buckwald feels the camp provided an opportunity for many to turn their lives around.

“This place gives you time to think. And even when we had 100 inmates out here … we didn’t have a lot of graffiti or vandalism because these guys built everything out here,” he said. “They painted the buildings. They poured the concrete. They grew the flowers and the vegetables. So there’s a lot of ownership.”

That ownership extended to individuals’ lives as well.

“It was an unbelievable opportunity because guys were coming out here and they were learning life skills,” said Buckwald. “They were learning work ethics.”

A downturn in the economy changed all that. The recession of 2008 caused deep cuts in the budget for the sheriff’s office. While parts of the main jail were being closed and deputies were laid off, the camp simply couldn’t justify operations and closed that same year. 

Shortly after, it was given back to the county.

It would be nine years before the camp saw care, maintenance or interest in bringing it back to life.

Enter Veterans Legacy.

“We had a vision of what this place could be,” Buckwald said. “If we did so many positive things with the inmate population, I really think it’ll be tenfold with a veteran population.”

In spring of 2017, the nonprofit made a rental agreement with the county for $100 a year, securing the deal in light of the cost for the county to continue keeping security detail on payroll.

“The county was paying in excess of $200,000 a year to have people out here,” Buckwald said, adding that his relationship with the land was a good selling point. “Because I’ve always been affiliated with this camp, it was a very good fit.”

In October last year, the county transferred the property to Legacy Veterans for just $1 and the 105-acre plot was named Camp Alma at the dedication ceremony, in homage to Alma Johnson, the first female settler to the area.

After so many years of sitting unattended, however, volunteers soon found how much work needed to be done.

“Every roof out here leaked,” Buckwald said.

Black mold had festered everywhere in a dormitory building, briars had free reign of the land, the greenhouses had collapsed and there was no water – but plenty of flood damage.

“You open things up and it’s like Pandora’s Box,” said Buckwald.

Veterans Legacy’s first $10,000 went to getting wells up and running, fixing water leaks coming from reservoirs and replacing water heaters. Since then, innumerable other details have slowly been chipped away by improvement efforts and countless hours of volunteer work invested into the project.

Moving at precisely the speed of volunteerism, work parties have provided bumps of productivity, but it remains an ongoing process.

“It’s difficult. It takes time,” said Buckwald. “I’d say we’re close to 80 percent right now.”

When the doors do open, the first five veteran residents will help to establish a strong foothold for the camp as a legitimate therapeutic operation.

“We wanted to focus on PTSD, but we’re not going to be able to start like that, so we’re going to focus on veterans that are homeless that want to come out here and build upon our community to reinvent themselves through agricultural therapy, through reconstruction skills,” Buckwald said.

With a strong start, doors will also open for the camp to apply for state or federal grant funding.

While Veterans Legacy is committed to helping Lane County veterans, Camp Alma’s legitimacy and effectiveness in part relies on a discerning intake process.

“This isn’t a crisis center,” said Buckwald. “When you come out here, you can’t be withdrawing from drugs or alcohol.”

Buckwald also emphasized that to be admitted, applicants have to show real interest in improving their lives.

“When the veteran comes out, they have to acknowledge that there is a problem. And when you come out here, you’re going to work on that problem,” he said. “This isn’t an escape by any means.”

Treatment is expected to be highly individualized, with residency lasting anywhere from months to years. In the end, however, the executive director stresses that reintegration must be maintained as a constant goal.

“This is a hand up, not a hand out,” Buckwald said.

Though there remains much to be done in terms of improvements, Buckwald, by his own admission, comes across as something of a visionary when talking about the camp’s future.

Among upcoming projects, Buckwald is intent on the camp making and selling its own tobasco sauce, erecting metal, autobody and paint shops, installing a windmill, building sports fields, setting up end-of-life care and constructing an amphitheater down by the Siuslaw River.

Plans are even in motion to obtain a fire truck, opening the possibility for first responder classes.

And, while broadband is prohibitively expensive for the time being, Buckwald hopes to eventually bring in telepsychiatry, telehealth and higher education through online courses.

“I think we only limit ourselves by our own imagination,” he said. “I think there are lot of different things that we can do out here. And if nothing else, at the end of the day we can provide hope that tomorrow is going to be a better day.”

While Buckwald’s passion for the project is a force of momentum unto itself, Veterans Legacy is still looking for help.

On July 6, the nonprofit will host a volunteer work party at the camp which aims to tackle many of the core improvement needs of the site including gardening and carpentry. Thus, a wide range of skills and skill levels is welcomed. The work party will run from 9 a.m to 2 p.m. and lunch will be provided.

For more information, visit the Veterans Legacy website at veteranslegacyoregon.org.

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