Operation Injured Soldiers at Brave Hearts Estate in Pellston: ‘Taking care of our own’

 

By Tamara Stevens  Brave Hearts Estate is appropriately named. A project of Operation Injured Soldiers (OIS), the estate opened in August 2015 as a retreat center for veterans and their families.

Located a few miles west of Pellston in central Emmet County, Brave Hearts Estate is an 8,000 square foot home on 238 acres that was donated to OIS by its owner, a veteran himself. The donor, who wishes to remain anonymous, announced on Veteran’s Day of 2014 that he would be donating the home and property to OIS, with one stipulation – that it be used strictly as a retreat for veterans and their families, said Jack Renwick, an OIS board member.

Renwick is from South Lyon, MI, headquarters of Operation Injured Soldiers. He and several other volunteer board members were at the estate in November for an open house that featured area restaurants competing in a barbecue rib cook-off. More than 300 people attended the event. Like so many aspects of Brave Hearts Estate, most of the food for the rib competition was donated, all the labor was volunteered – a majority of the labor was provided by members of the Northridge Community Church in Alanson – and after touring the facility and learning about OIS, many people made their own donations.

Caretakers Paul and Diane

 

“We have been very well accepted by the people up here,” Renwick said. “They want this place to go, to be successful. We have been truly blessed by the people in this community.”

For veterans and their families to qualify for a stay at Brave Hearts Estates, the veteran must be 30 percent disabled or have served in combat. Veterans stay at the estate for free, with all expenses paid for by OIS, other than their transportation.

“These fellows have been through a lot and they need a retreat,” Renwick said. “The estate serves as a place of healing for them.”

Managed by the all-volunteer board of OIS, the estate had temporary caretakers living on the premises until permanent caretakers could be found. Larry and Nancy Thueme (pronounced “Team”), also from South Lyon, were the temporary caretakers at the time of the open house. Thueme is also a board member.

“We like to tell people, ‘we came up for the Labor Day bridge walk and just stayed,’” Thueme said.

The couple actually traveled up from downstate throughout the summer getting the estate ready for its first guests in mid-August 2015. Once the estate began hosting veterans and their families, the Thuemes closed their home in South Lyon and moved, temporarily, into the estate, occupying one of the eight bedrooms in the three-story home.

web renwick

Jack Renwick, secretary of Operation Injured Soldier

Hosting two to three families each weekend, the estate provides food (breakfast and a light dinner) and lodging for their guests. Many businesses in Northern Michigan have donated tickets and passes for entertainment, dinners, and even ferry rides to Mackinac Island from Shepler’s Ferry Service, Thueme said. Golf courses have donated rounds of golf, for example, and Pizza Hut donated gift certificates.

 

“The more we can provide these veterans and their families, the better,” Thueme said.

Thueme said they offer suggestions to their guest veterans of tours they can take, such as driving the Tunnel of Trees on M-119, and other local attractions, but there are no organized activities planned.

“Some families check in and are gone all day, sightseeing, shopping, and dining,” Thueme said. “Others check in and never leave. They like the quiet and peaceful atmosphere of the estate. It’s up to them what they want to do while they’re here.”

The estate is out in the country, one mile north of Robinson Road on Ely road, west of U.S. 31. It sits on the north side of the road with plenty of open field around the estate. A wooden hill banks up behind the estate to the north.

“It’s a nice place for veterans to come and relax and unwind,” Thueme said. “It’s pretty serene.”

 

Operation Injured Soldiers

web brave 2Established 10 years ago, OIS is a Michigan based 501c3 nonprofit organization. Since its beginning in June 2005, the OIS has been comprised of an all-volunteer board. They are proud to say that they run a tight ship, with an average of 93 percent of every dollar donated going toward veteran programs. According to their treasurer, Pamela Bijansky, (in their official press information), in 2014, OIS offered 802 veterans opportunities to participate in 58 various events around the United States. All the events are offered free of charge to veterans. OIS is a gold star recipient of the Guide Star Charity rating.

According to the U.S. Census bureau, Michigan alone has 618,000 veterans, with 92,000 of them classified as 30 percent or more disabled. Renwick explained that the rating is assigned by the Veterans Affairs Department when a veteran is discharged (on a DD214 form).

The goal of Brave Heart Estate is the same as OIS’s programs, “To bring them together.” Veterans have stated that they feel safe around other veterans. OIS offers them a chance to meet other veterans at Brave Heart Estate, to talk about their experiences, if they wish, and for their wives and families to meet other wives and children and talk about similar experiences. “This is where healing begins,” according to Bijansky.

“Our main mission is to give injured vets and their families part of their life back,” said Thueme.

The estate is tax-exempt from property taxes, and donations receive a tax-deductible receipt for the donor. Maintaining the estate still requires approximately $86,000 per year, Thueme said, without any capital improvements that they want to make.

 

About Brave Hearts Estate

The estate has eight bedrooms, several with enough beds to accommodate up to four, and even six in each room. There are three dining rooms, and an expansive kitchen with lots of counter space and seating. Large bay windows grace each floor, allowing for natural light to bathe the interior spaces. All three levels have a large living room. A walk-out basement features a full kitchen, large living room and three bedrooms. Patriotic blankets and quilts lay across the backs of most of the couches, all donated by various organizations. All the furniture in the house was donated by the original owner when he donated the estate to OIS.

While there are no elevators in the house, there is a stair-chair lift that can give wheelchair bound veterans access to the third floor. They just received word of a grant to purchase a second stair-chair to allow wheelchair access to the lower level.

Shortly after the open house in November, the OIS announced that permanent caretakers had been hired for the estate. Paul Breningstall and Diane Loveday moved into the estate in mid-November. They closed up their home on Bois Blanc Island, where they’ve lived for the past five years and vacationed for many years prior to moving permanently to the island, and moved to “the mainland,” to become the full-time, year-round caretakers of Brave Heart Estate.

The temporary caretakers, Larry and Nancy Thueme, moved out in mid-November and returned to their home in South Lyon, where Larry will continue to serve on the board of OIS. They plan to return to Northern Michigan frequently.

The OIS board is confident in their selection of the new caretakers, Breningstall and Loveday, and they feel assured that they found the ideal couple to run the estate, Thueme said.

“We wanted someone who shared our mission and the goals of the OIS,” Thueme said. “We think we found such a couple.” Being a veteran or veterans wasn’t a requirement of the new caretakers, but the OIS board would have preferred that they have military experience. The new couple meets that preference.

Breningstall is a veteran who served 10 years in the U.S. Army. From 1979 to 1989 he was a motor Sergeant, a noncommissioned officer in charge of vehicle maintenance of each unit he was assigned to, he said.

Breningstall grew up in Fowlerville, outside of Lansing. He attended Michigan State University and joined the Army as a mechanic. Over his 10 years of service he was stationed at: Fort Leonardwood, Missouri; Fort Knox, Kentucky; Fort Stewart, Georgia; Fort Drumm, New York; Scoffield Barricks, Hawaii; Puson, Korea; Fort Bragg, North Carolina; and then back to Fort Stewart, Georgia. After leaving the Army he worked for General Motors and American Axle, a supplier to GM in Hamtramck, Michigan. He has three children and five grandchildren.

His parents had a cottage on Bois Blanc island since the early 1970s, and he spent most of his summers there. He moved up to the island in 2010 and continued working on the retirement home that he had begun building in 2001. The couple have lived permanently on the island for the past five years.

Loveday grew up in Livonia and moved to Brighton where she lived for 20 years, raising her two children. She was working in the hospitality industry, serving in a café in the mornings and working on her landscape design business in the afternoons, utilizing her Master Gardener skills.

“We feel honored,” said Loveday, about being selected to be the caretakers, “to be part of an organization that makes it their goal to provide an environment to show gratitude and respect to veterans and their families that have sacrificed so much. Through the OIS, we have the opportunity to offer veterans a place for rejuvenating and rest and relaxation.

“We feel gratitude to them for their service and now we’re able to show it to them,” Loveday said. “That concept just sold it for us.”

The two found out about Brave Heart Estates through a friend who has a relative that is an OIS board members. They weren’t even looking for job opportunities, they said. After living on the island for five years, they were beginning to consider other ways they could give back. That’s when they were approached about becoming caretakers.

They each bring with them their own useful skill sets: Loveday enjoys gardening and hospitality; Breningstall is mechanically inclined and has construction abilities. While living on the island, they were involved with caretaking the church and its numerous buildings. They were also active in supporting the island’s military veterans, organizing ceremonial flag raisings at the veteran’s park and other activities.

Describing themselves as “outdoors people,” they enjoy hiking, biking, snowshoeing, kayaking, and paddleboarding – “anything that gets us outside,” Loveday said.

By living at the estate, they feel they have the best of both worlds, Loveday said. Some people might feel secluded living in the country, but after the true isolation of living on a small island, they’re particularly excited about the opportunity to explore other areas of the county and northern Michigan.

“It’s our goal to stay active in reaching out to the community,” Breningstall said. “We want to encourage support of Brave Hearts and show that we support the community, as well.”

A family stopped by the other day, Breningstall said, for example. They had called before arriving. They requested a tour of the estate. After the tour, the family explained that in lieu of giving each other gifts at Christmas, they had decided to donate their money to Brave Hearts Estate.

“They handed us a donation,” Breningstall said. “They even put themselves on the volunteer list. We are truly blessed by the generosity of people in this area.”

There is a book for visitors to sign, and if they wish to volunteer, they can sign up. Veterans who stay at the estate are asked to do two simple things: sign a card that is sent to the donor of the estate, so the donor can see how the estate is helping veterans, and have their photograph taken. Veterans have traveled from far and wide to stay at the estate, many from Michigan, but also from New York and other states.

Ages of veterans who come to the estate vary widely. The OIS accepts veterans from any era, Thueme said. They took a World War II veteran out turkey hunting; he hadn’t been out in the woods or hunting in decades. They’ve hosted veterans from Vietnam and Korea and recent conflicts, too. On the weekend of the November open house there was a couple in their 60s and another couple in their in the 30s. One veteran had a service dog with him for his Traumatic Brain Injury.

“We never ask about their injuries,” Thueme said. “If they want to talk about them, I let them. I listen. But I never ask. Sometimes they’ll sit around the table and open up and tell stories with each other that their wives haven’t even heard.”

As visiting veterans are leaving, they often say that they don’t want to leave. They want to come back again. One group recently did just that. The estate hosted a woman’s veteran retreat in September with 16 women. They came back after Thanksgiving and spent the weekend decorating the estate with eight different Christmas trees, lights, stockings and more.

Breningstall said they are amazed at the many volunteers who have come forward to help. A group of high school students from Alanson High School will be there in January to paint some of the rooms.

Another local group that has been very supportive of the estate is the Northridge Community Church in Alanson. Pastor Pete Kroll’s wife, Lori, is originally from South Lyon. Her parents go to church with several of the board members of OIS. It didn’t take long for Kroll’s wife to urge her husband to get the church involved with Brave Hearts Estate. On the day of the open house in November, more than 30 members of the church were helping serve food and cleaning up.

“The willingness of the community to step forward and help veterans is present and it’s real,” Pastor Kroll said. “They want to help and to show veterans that they care. Brave Hearts gives them a wonderful opportunity. It’s a local rallying point. There are people who want to help, but up until now, may not have known how.”

The OIS has many plans for the future of the estate, including a caretaker’s apartment above the garage, which currently is being constructed. In the spring, two RV pads will be installed behind the estate for veterans who wish to stay in their own RVs, and eventually two stand-alone private cottages, for even more privacy, will be built on the property.

The estate’s brochure lists the benefits of Brave Hearts: A place of physical and mental healing; a place for families to reconnect; a place where service to our country is recognized and honored; a place where burdens can be forgotten; a place to relax, rest and play. There are hiking and biking trails on the property. There is a pond with a waterfall, campfire circle, horseshoes, volleyball net, cable TV and board games, and fishing and boating excursions can be arranged.

Veterans and their families interested in staying at Brave Hearts Estate can do so by registering on the OIS website, www.injuredsoliders.org. For more information on Operation Injured Soldiers and Brave Hearts Estate, contact them at (248) 437-3130, or at 10079 Colonial Industrial Drive, South Lyon, MI, 48178, info@injuredsoliders.org.

 

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