Advocates make a case for new Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke

Published: 1/26/2021 3:39:47 PM

HOLYOKE – As a spring deadline approaches to apply for federal money, advocates for the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke are calling for a new facility and a greater number of beds than what was outlined in a report the state released in November.

The Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Coalition was formed last spring to advocate for reforms at the facility in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak there that claimed at least 76 lives.

The coalition, which includes leaders of veterans service organizations, former employees of the home, and family members of those who died in the outbreak, is advocating for the replacement of the current facility with a new one that would include 280 private rooms and an adult health care day program.

In a Tuesday Zoom press conference, Paul Barabani, a former Soldiers’ Home superintendent and a coalition member, made the case that the report from Payette, the architectural firm hired by the state, which recommends that a replaced or renovated Soldiers’ Home have 180 to 204 beds, would not meet the needs of area veterans.

“Now is the time to demonstrate the true commitment to our veterans,” said Barbani. “Now is the time for action.”

He said the analysis may not have taken into account the increasing use of National Guard troops who would become eligible for the Soldiers’ Home, and that possible future military conflicts and increases in diseases like Alzheimer’s were not considered.

The coalition is looking for the Veteran Administration’s State Veterans Home Construction Grant Program to pay for the facility’s replacement.

The deadline for applying for money under the program is April 15, while the one for the state to approve matching funds is Aug. 1. Under the program, the VA provides 65% of construction costs while the state matches with 35%.

“We hope our legislators are listening, we hope the board of trustees are listening and we hope at the end of the day (the) executive branch does the right thing,” said John Paradis, who serves as a spokesperson for the coalition.

The Soldiers’ Home’s trustees are set to meet Wednesday, and Paradis said that he hopes the concerns and questions the board brings up are within the context of the coalition’s analysis.

“I think they’re going to question the state’s analysis,” said Paradis, in an interview.

Steve Connor, the director of Central Hampshire Veterans’ Services, noted the attractiveness of the Soldiers’ Home to veterans, and that there is a demand for it even in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. He described how at the home, veterans would tell stories about their military service they’d never told their families before.

“They have shared experience,” Connor said. “That can’t be trivialized.”

Bera Dunau can be reached at [email protected].