The last 15 years have brought a lot of change for Phyllis Abbott.

The founder of Lady Veterans Connect grew up in a military family, but her focus started changing in the last decade.

“In 2004, I co-chaired and started Church Under The Bridge in Lexington,” she said. “It’s a ministry to the homeless who want to go to church but aren’t always accepted. A lot of homeless veterans came to those services. A lot have a deep religious belief but knew they weren’t accepted at church.”

After going back to college and taking care of her family for several years, she was ready to start working.

“When I decided I wanted to work with veterans in 2012, I started Sheppard’s Hands,” she said. “I saw there was nothing there for women veterans and they’re 15 percent of the military.”

With that realization, Abbott had her focus and found her niche. A lot of female veterans wouldn’t seek help from the Veterans Administration because of their experiences or would not identify themselves as veterans.

The numbers of female veterans in the homeless community have been growing. According to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report, 40,000 veterans were homeless on a single night in January 2017. Nine percent of those were women. Those numbers are increasing.

“Today, 41 percent of women veterans have experienced sexual trauma so they also have PTSD,” she said. “You can’t integrate them with men because that won’t help.”

Some don’t have the necessary life skills to manage rent and utilities. Some need help getting and finding jobs. Some just need a person they can trust and connect with.

“Our main thing is to get the girls healthy mentally and physically,” Abbott said. “In the military, you don’t have to worry about rent or food or insurance. You’re not prepared for” life outside the military. “Some of the jobs in the military are not transferable.”

One client, she said, refueled tanks during her service. She is now working, holding down a  job and managing life, she said.

Lady Veterans Connect started in July 2016 with a small home in Lexington.

“We’ve not had a night a veteran’s not been living there,” she said.

Based on that success, another opportunity presented itself a few months later.

In May 2014, Clark County Public Schools closed Trapp and three other elementary schools and consolidated the students as part of a major realignment of the district.

In 2016, Lady Veterans Connect reached an agreement with the owners of Trapp, Brian Howard and Allen Taylor, to purchase the building and transform it into
long-term transitional housing for female veterans.

“A lot of people think we should already be open,” Abbott said. “They don’t visualize how much there was to do here. For our girls to heal and be whole again, they need to come into a place that looks like a home.”

Converting a three-decade old former elementary school with a coal furnace into a home is easier said than done. A lot of progress has been made, thanks to volunteers, donations and fund-raising efforts. There is still a way to go.

The biggest item remains a new furnace for the back of the building, with the school’s former classrooms and library. Originally, quotes for buying and installing the necessary furnace were around $170,000, she said. The latest quote was down to $78,000, she said.

A new furnace was installed for the front of the school. Some of the rooms have been furnished as they would for residents. Showers are being added to the bathrooms. New doors have already been installed.

A $50,000 grant will purchase new lights and other equipment … almost everything except the HVAC, she said.

“We’ve done three yard sales each year and that pays our utilities,” she said. “We accept everything. It all gets repurposed in some way.”

There will be classes for the women. There will be a place to get their hair done. Hopefully, she said, there will be cottages on the property so veterans can live with their children, repairing and rebuilding their relationships interrupted by military service.

“Even though we don’t have women in this facility, we are still serving women veterans.” §