One woman leads an army of volunteers to serve our area’s veterans
Midland’s Molly Brooks had a vision early on. Growing up in the economically-depressed Ozarks with her mother working in a nursing home, Molly was privy to the substandard environment of the elderly who lived there. “She would take me to visit the nursing homes in the 1980s, and they were not nice places,” Molly said. “Those images stuck with me, so when I became a registered nurse and my friends were taking glamorous health care jobs, I chose to work with the elderly. If you take your child somewhere to volunteer, it may have a lasting impact on the world. That experience always stayed in my heart.”
Molly, who has lived in Midland since 2006 when her husband was transferred to the area, fell in love with the southern end of Fauquier County which bears a close resemblance to the pastoral farmland in her native Missouri. She and her husband raised their four boys here, and still live in Midland with their doberman and a cat.
In 2016, in the midst of a 23-year career in nursing and a high-level, high-stress healthcare leadership role, Molly founded Hero’s Bridge, a Warenton-based nonprofit that serves the immediate needs of our area’s elderly veterans. Now, she leads Hero’s Bridge with one other full time staff member, three part time staff members, and a volunteer team that numbers 125, about 25 of whom are very active in the organization.
In founding the organization, not only was she influenced by her childhood experiences and her nursing career, but also her family ties to the military – her husband of 23 years, Bobby Brooks, is an Army Operation Desert Storm veteran and works for the Department of Justice, while her father was a Marine Corp Vietnam veteran who suffered from the effects of agent orange. “I did both jobs for four years, then last November I walked away from my comfy job to focus full-time on Hero’s Bridge,” Molly said. “I was tired of seeing elders living in terrible circumstances. Today, we follow about 325 elderly veterans in our area. Through our work, we have come to realize about 80 percent of how a person’s quality of life plays out as they age has nothing to do with health – it’s more about where they live, whether they have access to good food, can they drive, do they have medical care?”
Hero’s Bridge Programs
Molly wanted to address problems that the healthcare system was not. In fact, under the Hero’s Bridge umbrella, there are many programs born simply from the calls she was receiving for help. “Why was the neighbor calling – what was the need? I built the programs around that data,” Molly said. “That is why there are specific programs. The Battle Buddy program is the foundation of everything we do, because the one common thread and the reason they struggle is that they are alone. I call them elder orphans.” Many veterans are on their own for several reasons, and the Battle Buddy program, which pairs volunteers with veterans, steps in to fill that gap. “Some never had a family, and some suffer from fractured family relationships, sometimes from terrible PTSD issues because it wasn’t a diagnosis back then (for instance it wasn’t known why they were abusing alcohol). We know so much more now.” The Battle Buddies fill in where a family member would have, similar to a big sister/big brother program that benefits both the volunteers and the recipients.
Other important programs alongside Battle Buddies include Honor Guard, which honors service through commemorative actions like finding lost medals and records, recording life stories, finding lost comrades, and hosting veterans socials; Resource Scouts help older veterans navigate a web of bureaucracies, agencies, systems, and rules to receive the services they earned; Paw Patrol helps care for aging pets and also arranges pet visits to nursing homes and residences; Home Front assists with maintenance, cleaning, yard work and more to help maintain a safe and comfortable home; and Telehero provides senior-friendly tablets for video calls, medication reminders and more while keeping elders safe from online fraud.
Hero’s Bridge has an overall theme of four main goals – always remain centric to the older veteran, no red tape, no passing the buck, and never leave a man behind. “One of our values is no red tape – we work that into everything we do,” Molly said. “If they need groceries, we get bread and milk and deliver it. There is no elaborate sign-up system, no showing us bank statements. We are innovating by going backwards in time – neighbors used to do this for neighbors.”
A new project will be Molly’s vision realized as Hero’s Bridge builds The Village, a tiny home village for area elderly veterans. “In our area, we have three senior housing communities that each have a two year waiting list,” Molly said. “We see vets every single day who live in substandard housing. They rent whatever they can find, and unfortunately in our community, it’s subdivided houses with small, dark units, and sometimes trailers with failing floorboards. We drive around and see million dollar homes, but it is important to document this so people understand it’s not like that for everyone.”
The first plan includes up to 50 tiny homes with a community center. “The tiny home concept gives our elders dignity and autonomy – they can live separately but together in a community,” Molly said. “We will plan doctor visits once a week, and have meds and groceries delivered. This need came to the forefront during COVID – one-third of the deaths in America were in senior congregate settings.” In a tiny house community, residents can stay socially distant when necessary yet still live as a group. It’s a financially feasible option as well, costing $106 per square foot to build, versus $136 per square foot to build an apartment.
“I visited Eden’s Village, a tiny home community in Springfield, MO., which is comprised of three villages to house the homeless,” Molly shared. “I walked down the street and it was the most magical place. People who had led quite disastrous lives were picking up their mail or getting on the bus to go to work. It left quite an impression.” The idea for adapting the concept to veteran housing was born. Last Veterans Day, Hero’s Bridge had a soft announcement for The Village, and to date have lined up some major funders and a builder. “We are still looking for the right spot in our area,” Molly said. “I have to say the county supervisors have been absolutely amazing in helping us talk through zoning and land use issues on the books because they love the concept.”
Molly’s goal is to have the location for The Village locked in by the end of this year. The funds have been raised to build the first tiny home, which will be open to the community so people can experience the quality and the concept. She is asking for help through monetary donations and also through the purchase of bricks that will be inscribed with names issued by the purchaser and used to create the foundation for a common outdoor area. “Down the road, we may need the community to voice their support for elderly and veteran affordable housing,” she added. “Also, we have many volunteer options for people to get to know and assist the veterans in our community.” Visit the Hero’s Bridge website for volunteer and program information as well as donation options and information on The Village. As Molly knows, you can have your own vision, but it truly takes a village.