Donnie and Jennifer Davis are converting a shuttered camp into a therapeutic community for struggling veterans in Franklinville. Carly Q. Romalino
UPDATE, July 27, 2017: GoFundMe named Donnie Davis its Hero of the month for Operation Safe Haven. The monthly series by the crowdfunding site celebrates extraordinary people who do extraordinary things on GoFundMe.
UPDATE, Nov. 29, 2016: As part of Giving Tuesday on Nov. 29, GoFundMe contributed $1,000 to the Davis' Operation Save Haven campaign to provide transitional housing to veterans. A spokesman for GoFundMe, a crowd funding website where Donnie Davis is raising money for his project, said the project "inspired" executives to donate to the cause. Operation Safe Haven is among 100 other project on the site receiving a $1,000 donation from GoFundMe.
FRANKLIN - On the 10-foot front porch of a small cabin overlooking Timothy Lake, Donnie Davis can almost forget he's ever been shot at or stabbed.
The view is therapeutic for the Air Force veteran and former Maryland police officer's post-traumatic stress. He hopes to pass on that relief to other South Jersey veterans struggling to cope with traumatic events and assimilate to civilian life.
"When you're a vet, you make that oath not only to serve and protect your country, but to take care of each other," Davis told the Courier-Post Friday.
"That oath doesn't stop. There's no expiration date."
Davis served in the Air Force from 1993 to 1998, serving in the Presidential Honor Guard. Then, he became a police officer in Prince George County, Maryland, where he was "shot at and stabbed," he said. He wouldn't talk about the incident that triggered post-traumatic stress disorder. It's a wildly unpleasant story.
His service dog Zeus is always at his side, sensing when Davis will need calming.
Davis, now a pastor of Amazing Grace Ministries, and his wife Jennifer, a special education teacher at Williamstown Middle School, bought the shuttered Village Dock campground this summer as Amazing Grace Ministries. The $1.3 million sale was funded through donations, he said.
In fact, Donnie Davis' entire vision for the campground relies on volunteers, donations and an active GoFundMe.com account.
"It's scary," said Jennifer, who, with Donnie, has five children aged 21 to 10. The family just moved from Williamstown to the park grounds.
"It's just a leap of faith."
The crowdfunding account already has $76,980 of its $500,000 goal pledged to the initiative Operation Safe Haven, the transformation of a decaying campground into a wooded village of tiny, temporary veteran housing.
View Davis' GoFundMe.com page.
Veterans who were honorably discharged and are through detox programs and not "self-medicating" with drugs or alcohol, would be eligible for one of the houses, and a two-year program to get them "squared away," Davis said.
In addition to housing, the program would offer degree-completion, guaranteed employment though a local union, and a savings account to put away their paychecks for the two years their board is covered, Davis said.
Veterans Day, Operation Safe Haven cut the ribbon on its first "micro cabin." The ribbon-cutting signifies the structural soundness of the first house in the community. It would be ready for its first occupant by Christmas.
"At the end of two years, the goal is for them to be the man or the woman, husband or wife, mother or father that they were supposed to be," Davis said.
"Something happened to them. And we want to get them back on track."
The cabin was rotting just a few months ago. The camp had been vacant since its former owners died a decade ago. Issues with Timothy Lake's dam and the sheer size of the 277-acre property made it tough to sell.
The 330-square-foot cabin, costing $30,000 to renovate, is the first of about 60 micro-houses planned for the camp. The roof, septic and well were donated. The 59 other houses, costing $10,000 each, will be about 300 square feet modular houses built on existing pads with water and electric hookups. The pads were once RV camp sites.
Every tiny house will have a small porch of its own, and a rocking chair that looks out onto Lake Timothy, just like Davis' own house on the campgrounds.
"When you come back from any traumatic circumstance, you don't really want to talk. To be able to sit and just hear that wind blowing, see that view, it takes everything away," he said.
"It does something for you. You can't bottle it. You can't get a prescription for it."
Carly Q. Romalino; (856) 486-2476; firstname.lastname@example.org