WILLIAMSBURG — Joe Schirmer, the President and Founder of The Rise As One Foundation, has a passion for real estate and for making sure that veterans have a home.
The idea for The Rise As One Foundation started back around 2006 when Schirmer and Dan Gaita had come in contact with a World War II (WWII) veteran named Lou Russo. At the time, Russo was on the verge of homelessness. The year that they first encountered Russo, he was kicked out of his house, and he had lost all his belongings, including precious jewelry that was handed down to him by his parents and other family members.
Schirmer and Gaita couldn’t believe that someone who had sacrificed so much had ended up alone and without a home so late in their life. When they received a call to fix up Russo’s house for free, Schirmer and Gaita did not hesitate and they gathered about twenty volunteers who were able to move him back into his home on Veterans Day (Nov. 11) of that same year.
“I kept posting on social media saying, ‘this is a WWII veteran if anybody wants to help out please reach out to us.’ What ended up happening is that we were able to move him back into his house, but then we had to get him free of the court system,” said Schirmer in an interview with WYDaily. “They had him under court conservatorship. So we went to court for another 7 months, and by the end of it, it was me and Danny left. We had all these volunteers on days 1 and 2 and then all of a sudden it was me and Danny. So the judge comes up to us and says, ‘Hey, so I see you two are his biggest advocates. We’re ready to release him from his conservatorship but who’s going to take care of him?’ I said, ‘Your Honor, you know if it wasn’t for the guy sitting in that chair we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.’ I said, ‘It would be my absolute honor and privilege for me to take care of him the rest of his life.'”
That’s exactly what Schirmer decided to do. On that day, he promised Russo that he would take care of him for the rest of his life and that the WWII veteran would never be in that situation again. Schirmer visited Lou every Sunday and the two became really close friends over the years.
That experience with Lou Russo was the inspiration for the Schirmer to move to Virginia and start his Foundation.
“Lou passed away two days after my wife and I came down to Williamsburg,” said Schirmer. “I never told him I was coming down here. So that was my sign from God that he was freeing me to build these veteran houses for veterans.”
The Foundation started in May of 2019, and, in 2020, it officially received its federal tax exempt status. It is now able to receive donations from all over the country, with a current goal to build one veteran house in at least 33 states in the next five years.
The Move To Virginia and The Spaghetti Dinner
One veteran that the Foundation is currently helping to raise funds for is U.S. Army veteran Cory Willis.
“Cory Willis is from Ripley Tennessee. We’ve done two fundraisers for him already, and now it’ll be three with this spaghetti dinner,” said Schirmer. “All the money will go to him. He’s about ready to be evicted out of his house. Also, two weeks ago his car broke down so he has no car, and he’s about to be homeless.”
Willis joined the Army in 2001, after Sept. 11 shook the nation. In 2005, he was deployed in Iraq when his High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (“Humvee”) got hit by an explosion, causing the vehicle to roll over. This resulted in Willis tearing both of his rotator cuffs. This incident caused Willis to be discharged from service and, for two years following, he struggled to get back to a sense of normalcy. He suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and, at the time, he didn’t know there were services out there that would help him get adjusted back to civilian life.
The Rise As One Foundation is planning to get a house for Willis. They plan on buying it and then moving him into the property where Willis can make it his permanent residency.
The Spaghetti Dinner will be hosted on Saturday, Dec. 11 at the American Legion Post 83.
Schirmer says the success of the Foundation relies on building upon the awareness of the Foundation itself, and fundraising events like the upcoming spaghetti dinner.
Another plan in the works is to develop assisted living homes for veterans in which Schirmer says will create a big impact on local communities.
“Typically when these guys come back home they’re getting places by themselves. Some of them are going into the streets homeless because they can’t adapt. They’re going from a warzone to civilian life. The big vision would be to get an army base donated to the Foundation and open it back up to these veterans,” said Schirmer. “So we can put them back into the barracks, the [Post Exchanges (PX)] are already there, the mess halls are already there, we’ll raise the flag at 6 o’clock and put it back down at 5 o’clock just like they would every single day. That’s what these guys require. They need that connection, they need purpose, and they need structure.”
Schirmer says that he hopes to make an impact on the veteran community by helping people find a purpose and teaching them a skill that they can use to propel them into a successful career. This is why Schirmer is so passionate about real estate and he hopes that he can share over twenty years of experience in real estate with other veterans.
“It’s definitely a life calling. I’m humbled and honored to be able to do this,” said Schirmer. “We get to serve our veterans, and we get to serve our community and we get to give purpose to people and that’s ultimately why we’re all here. We can assist each other and rise as one. That’s where the name came from.”
For those seeking more information about The Rise As One Foundation they can check out their Facebook page, or they can donate directly through their Homes For Vets website.