Homecoming mission

Coast Guardsman Ray Concepcion (center), his wife Cassie, and sons Xavier and Eddie

Coast Guardsman Ray Concepcion (center), his wife Cassie, and sons Xavier and Eddie, are assisted by Port St. Lucie city officials and staff as they cut the ribbon on their newly renovated Port St. Lucie home. CITY OF PORT ST. LUCIE PHOTO

City, businesses and organizations thank military families for years of service and sacrifice


What more gratitude can a community show military families than offering the security of a place to call home? Realizing that home ownership can be a huge hurdle since raising a family on a military salary is often a struggle, Port St. Lucie has done just that for three special servicemen who received mortgage-free homes.

In 2013, retired Army Sgt. Michael Burke, a Purple Heart recipient, was awarded a home and the key to the city with deep appreciation for protecting the homeland. Thanks to the sponsorship efforts of Florida Realtors, Military Warriors Support Foundation and Chase Bank, which donated the home, local businesses also generously partnered: Rooms To Go donated $10,000 worth of home furnishings, Jetson’s donated a 60-inch television and the Realtors Association of St. Lucie provided a grill and a $500 gift card from Publix.

“It feels wonderful,” says Gary Cassidy, Rooms To Go store manager. “When the company you work for does something like this, it really makes you feel great. It’s nice to see the whole community support a family as nice as the Burkes.”

On the frontlines in Iraq, Burke spent two months in a Baghdad hospital and Camp Liberty recovering from an IED blast, then returning on mission for another year. He retired in 2009. “My project would not have been what it was without Staci Storms — she did so much for us,” Burke says. “She gave out of her own finances on the furnishings. We’re fortunate as the newer veterans because people care so much more now. It wasn’t like that in Vietnam.”

“He was wounded and this is our way of giving back to him,” says Storms, a retired CEO of Realtors Association of St. Lucie. “I am so honored to have been part of this project.”

Burke has settled into retirement and is doing a lot of fishing. “An organization called Freedom Fighters takes wounded vets fishing. An Army friend and I recently went offshore fishing with the boat captain for Jimmy Buffet,” Burke says.

In 2015, a nonprofit, Building Homes for Heroes, and the Treasure Coast Builders Association spearheaded a project to provide a mortgage-free home to wounded veteran and Purple Heart recipient, retired Army Spc. Hugo Gonzalez, his wife and three daughters. Gonzalez, who is legally blind but has some peripheral vision, suffered severe brain trauma during an ambush and gun battle with insurgents when his combat vehicle hit a roadside bomb during his 2004 tour in Iraq.

“When a soldier goes to war, the family goes to war as well,” Gonzalez says. The painstaking transition back to civilian life presents new challenges. The more productive a veteran can be, the better their self image becomes and a home equipped with adaptable features makes every day that much better.

To make the home his castle, the design aspects include a lighting system that allows him to navigate his new home safely and confidently, special floor textures that serve as paths from room to room and handrails for added guidance. “As he walks around, he feels and knows where he is at all times,” comments Andy Pujol, president of Building Homes for Heroes.

A new round of home giveaways kicked off in 2016 with A Home for a Hero program. At the direction of the city council, GENESYS Community Development Corp. was contracted to oversee project management and identify qualified veterans who were then entered into a lottery.

“We are proud to support our veterans and honored to recognize their sacrifices to protect us and our way of life,” Mayor Greg Oravec says. “It’s exciting to think that we can accomplish so many good things with just one program.”

Port St. Lucie was awarded $17 million from the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program to acquire, redevelop or renovate foreclosed properties to prevent abandonment that leads to blight. Several properties were earmarked as affordable housing for veterans.

Coast Guard Petty Officer Raymond Concepcion and his wife, Cassie, were selected to receive a mortgage-free, single-family home. Gold Star mother Linda Schumann, mother of deceased Army soldier Jordan C. Schumann, pulled their name during a lottery that was held on Veterans Day last year.

“The appeal of the area was clean, safe and inviting for our family,” Cassie says. “The boys are super excited. We all want a garden.” Ray, Cassie and sons Eddie, 11, and Xavier, 8, are living in Big Pine Key, just north of Key West and will relocate when the school year ends.

Cassie learned of the lottery from Becca Lane, a real estate agent whom she befriended when the family lived in Port St. Lucie and who accepted the award on the family’s behalf. “She’s been there for the family and is a great friend,” Cassie says.

The timing was critical: It was two days before the application deadline. And in one day she submitted all the required documentation. “They told me I sent the most complete paperwork of all the applicants,” Cassie says.

The family had lived here while Ray was stationed at the Coast Guard station in Fort Pierce in 2012. During his tour, he participated in two rescues on the same day at the inlet. Five men were fished out of the water and a child and three adults were scooped up in 9-foot seas after the swells nearly capsized their boat. Cassie, a psych nurse who treats homeless people at a detoxification unit at the Lower Keys Medical Center, recalls how the incident affected them as parents of a 6-year-old at the time. They later learned that the child who was saved attended kindergarten with their son.

Ray is a boarding maritime enforcement specialist on the 270-foot cutter, Thetis, which patrols the Florida Straits, running interdiction of human and drug smugglers. In response to the daily influx of illegal migration from Cuba and Haiti, the crew also targets makeshift vessels that are not seaworthy.

Ray participated in humanitarian relief missions to Haiti following Hurricane Matthew last year. The crew assisted the Royal Netherlands Navy HNLMS Holland, Dutch marines and Red Cross members, loading supplies for the World Food Program at the Haitian Coast Guard station in Les Cayes.

As new homeowners, the Concepcions are looking forward to putting down roots. “The rooms are huge,” Cassie says, “and there’s a kitchen pantry. We have lots of boxes because we’ve moved often. Things get banged and broken so you live with cheap apartment furniture. The first thing I’ll do is replace it.”

Built in 1980, the fully remodeled home on a corner lot has three bedrooms, two full baths and a two-car garage. Improvements include a new roof, an air-conditioning unit, windows, plumbing and electrical systems, fresh paint, tiled floors, new kitchen cabinets, appliances (refrigerator, stove and dishwasher) and upgraded bathrooms. Landscaping and pest control were added.

The Jan. 26 ribbon-cutting and key ceremony was an opportunity for sponsors, dignitaries, city staff and neighbors to meet the family. “I cannot put it into words how amazing this program is,” Ray says. “It’s overwhelming. All I can say is thank you.”