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Bemidji Veterans Home holds flag raising, prepares to welcome first residents

Bemidji Pioneer - 1/11/2024

Jan. 11—BEMIDJI — After decades of advocacy and dreams, the flags of the United States and its military branches were officially raised over the new Bemidji Veterans Home on Tuesday, Jan. 9, with a small crowd present to bear witness.

In the cold and snow, local veterans and the color guard carefully unfolded each flag and raised them into the sky before singing the national anthem and saying the Pledge of Allegiance.

"Today is an important day in the evolution of this home," shared Kevin Gish, the home's administrator. "I thought it important to have some of the veterans who have really advocated for this home to have the opportunity to raise the flags for the first time."

While the first residents aren't expected to move into the home until the end of the month, the completion of the $52 million facility and the raising of the flags mark the progress the project has made since its initial conception in 2007.

Since that idea more than 15 years ago, local veterans like Ralph Morris began advocating for the project, seeking out funds and support.

"This was truly a team effort," Morris said, "no individual party did this themselves."

Backing up their dreams with data, a study was completed in 2013 that outlined the need for a veterans home in northwest Minnesota. It explained that more than 31,000 veterans call northern Minnesota home, with nearly 75% aged 55 and older.

Despite this, the nearest veterans homes are in Fergus Falls and Silver Bay, leaving significant areas underserved. The study also explained the true goal of the veterans home, with Morris quoting a portion of it.

"This building has been designed with individual veterans as the sole purpose of the facility," he read. "They've given so much to their country, (and) this will be their home to live out their lives in a supportive environment, knowing they are appreciated and cared for in gratitude for their service."

Following the flag ceremony, a tour of the building was given, walking those in attendance through its various amenities. The home has 72 private beds, separated into four households named after nearby counties.

Each household has identical services, with a hub in the center for shared amenities like a theater and library.

Since the home is designed for veterans who require skilled nursing care, it also features a therapeutic gym, nursing stations and a spa.

"It's great, I'm just overwhelmed with the facility and what they're going to provide for our vets," shared Bruce Malterud, a commander with the local VFW. "There's everything here that they could want."

The home will employ 168 people when it is fully staffed, with around 50 employed currently. These positions range from kitchen and custodial staff to nurses and administration.

Gish, who has been in charge of putting together staffing and preparing for residents, shared that his goal is to truly make the facility a home.

"That's what we all signed up for here, to serve those who have served," he said. "We want this to be their home, we want them to thrive."

Gish has been working to make the facility "a home that doubles as a nursing home." This means that, alongside providing high-quality nursing care, the building feels like somewhere residents can have a sense of community.

"We want this to be a place where veterans want to come," Gish said, "where they can be among other vets in a place built for vets."

Gish also doesn't want the home to be isolated from the broader community and plans to have outings for residents, as well as encourage families and organizations to visit the veterans at the location.

"We want to be engaged," Gish said. "I want people to know we want to be an active part of the community."

As a start to these goals, the home will welcome its first few residents on Jan. 30, with an initial capacity of 24. After those 24 veterans have lived there for a month, the last step of the home's recognition will come from a federal survey.

This survey will be done on a pass/fail basis, with Gish sharing that only 20% of homes pass on their first attempt. Until the Bemidji Veterans Home passes, it will be limited to hosting 24 residents rather than its full 72.

"We're being cautiously optimistic, but we may be stuck at that 20 to 24 for a while," Gish explained.

In the meantime, Gish and local veterans have been celebrating the progress so far, and what it will mean to so many service members as they age.

"There are so many veterans that need this facility here," Malterud said. "I hope I don't need it, but boy it's here if I do and it's beautiful."

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(c)2024 The Bemidji Pioneer (Bemidji, Minn.)

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