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Building on Success

Jon Gonsalves made his non-profit a success by rallying an industry to build homes for disabled vets.

John's new lease on life

“How do you start a nonprofit?” Typing that question into Google late one night in 2003, Massachusetts construction supervisor and contractor John Gonsalves had no idea his life was about to change.

He’d enjoyed his 20 years working in construction, yet after the September 11 tragedy, he yearned to do something more meaningful with his experience. One night he saw a story on the news about a serviceman who’d been wounded in Iraq and had to have both legs amputated. He’s going to need a house that accommodates a wheelchair, John thought. Finally, here was a way he could donate his expertise! He scoured the internet, looking for organizations that build homes adapted for disabled veterans. There weren’t any.

“The need seemed so obvious,” John says. “I decided right then and there I was going to make it happen.” That’s why he did his Google search on starting a nonprofit. More internet research helped him build a website and file the necessary paperwork to establish his organization, Homes for Our Troops.

Six months later, again on the evening news, John found the first candidate for a new home: Sgt. Peter Damon of Brockton, Massachusetts, two towns away. John called. At first, “Pete thought I was a nut job,” he says, laughing. Then Pete said that if the offer was just a good deed for a local, forget it—there were too many critically wounded soldiers out there in need. When John assured him he planned to go national, Pete agreed.

John went back to Google: “how to throw a fundraiser,” “how to write a press release.” A local newspaper ran an article about his idea. Readers sent him $40,000 in donations. A follow-up story got the attention of not only more donors but also the national media. The next thing John knew, he was teaming up with Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Donations poured in, from sources ranging from big corporations to a fifth-grade class. John got construction workers all over the nation to donate their time. So far, these gifts have meant 26 homes custom-built or renovated for  disabled Iraq war veterans at no charge.

“Until now, I have never had a job where I wish there were more hours I could work,” John says. “I get more out of it than the veterans. I’ve learned so much about people. I’ve learned more in the past four years than in the whole rest of my life.”

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