A half dozen Boy Scouts swarmed the back of the U-Haul, unloading benches, tables and planter boxes, all made of cedar.
Staff and clients at the PIER (Partnership in Effective Recovery) Center at the Long Beach Tibor Rubin Veterans Administration Medical Center watched with a mixture of curiosity and pride. This project would make it just a little easier to wait for the mental health services the hospital provides.
For Aaron Pavlovich, that afternoon last Thursday, June 20, was the culmination of nearly two years of work. This effort to add picnic tables and benches, with four large planter boxes as well, is his Eagle project.
Watching with pride alongside Aaron's mother were Tami Bell and Debbie Butler from the American Legion Auxiliary Unit 496, based in Lakewood. The Auxiliary applied for the grant and raised the 20 percent match to come up with the nearly $4,000 cost of materials.
"We first met Robert (Salcedo, Scoutmaster for Troop 126) at a food drive," Bell said. "He was a UPS driver at the time, and we filled his truck with food. We got to talking and said if he ever needed help with other projects, to let us know."
Troop 126 is known for developing Eagle Scouts, the highest rank in Scouting — four members made Eagle last year, and five are in the process this year, Salcedo said. When the suggestion for a project associated with military veterans came up, Pavolich seemed a good fit.
"He had to do all the planning and present it to a panel," Salcedo said. "Then he had to find the funding, organize the volunteers and more. The whole idea is to learn and show leadership."
Bell was familiar with the PIER program, where director Nicole Samuelson and her small staff provide peer support for veterans suffering from mental health issues and/or substance abuse. Lunches and other activities attract vets to the patio. The center sits near the back of the VA campus, in a building that had been abandoned before PIER moved in.
"There were some obstacles, some problems," Pavlovich said. "We were going to do an infrastructure project, but there were multiple permits needed, and we found out they might be moving the center soon. So we decided to do something portable, something they could take with them."
A number of the veterans using the center are confined to wheelchairs. Basic outdoor tables aren't tall enough or have legs making it hard to get a wheelchair underneath. Pavlovich and his advisors found a table design that solved that problem. He added benches and the planters to create a complete project.
While cedar is great material for outdoor furniture, it isn't cheap. That's where the American Legion Auxiliary came in. The American Legion is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year; the local post and its auxiliary wanted to celebrate with something lasting, Butler said. She is the current president of Unit 496.
The unit applied to the American Legion Auxiliary Foundation for a grant of $3,040, then, with help from the Sons of the American Legion, raised another $700 to meet the 20 percent match requirement. A little arm-twisting at the VA's administrative offices won approval for the project.
"We're just not funded to provide these sorts of things," Richard Beam, the VA Long Beach's director of public and community affairs, said while waiting for the scouts. "This is the human aspect we desperately need. We are grateful."
Earlier this spring, Pavolich organized a build day that included a dozen Boy Scouts and four or five adults. That six-hour day was followed by last Thursday's installation. This Tuesday, the American Legion Auxiliary hosted a lunch at the PIER Center to celebrate the completed project. And, Samuelson said, all the components will move when a new center site is ready.
Pavolich is entering his senior year at Poly High School this fall, and has started the college selection process. He's better prepared now, thanks to the Eagle project, his troop master said.
"I've seen Aaron grow through this process," Salcedo said. "It's been a pleasure and a satisfaction to watch that happen."