‘Paradise’ for veterans hits snag

Funding challenges interfere with efforts to develop a therapy resort for veterans at the former Elsmore school. Dubbed the Elsmore Sustainability Institute, the facility would offer therapy and relaxation for veterans.

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December 7, 2020 - 9:15 AM

Silverio Garcia of Iola shares his plans for building the Elsmore Sustainability Institute, a haven for veterans and their families. Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register

“I couldn’t get it out of my head,” remarked Silverio Garcia at the prospect of transforming the old Elsmore school into a therapy resort for veterans.

Not long ago, he found himself watching the sun rise over the property (built in 1935 by the Works Progress Administration) as it seemed to almost mystically float in the air, calling him on a mission.

At first Garcia thought developing a technology training center might be in order, but eventually shifted gears and started envisioning “some sort of a retreat,” featuring everything from cabins and ponds to outdoor kitchens.

Silverio Garcia at the Elsmore Sustainability Institute.Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register

After triangulating with the Wounded Warriors Project and Southeast Kansas Mental Health Center, therapist Doug Wright in particular, a more complete plan started to unfold and details began to crystallize.

“I want a place for healing, where families can heal,” remarked Garcia. That is, someplace where it’s possible for others to understand “what a vet is going through,” especially by having family members present during the therapeutic process so as to rebuild key bonds.

Garcia described such a capacity as involving “critically important” work, especially since rates of depression and suicide among veterans in Kansas are shockingly high.

And it is an effort that will have to be ongoing, which explains why Garcia has christened his project the Elsmore Sustainability Institute.

“If you do it right, it’ll last forever,” he said.

Silverio Garcia at the Elsmore Sustainability Institute.Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register

So far, Garcia has invested around $380,000 and come quite a long way. However, things are currently at an impasse.

There are simply too many structural changes left to make to the buildings and not enough cash to go around, including working on windows and a roof damaged by tornadic activity.

“We’ve hit rock bottom,” he explained. “It’s our retirement money. It’s not meant to break us.”

Once construction is taken care of, funding for health and other staff will come, but renovation isn’t moving forward much beyond what Garcia is able to do by himself.

“Right now, I’m a one-man band,” he explained.

Garcia therefore estimates needing around $800,000 before the Sustainability Center can become a reality.

Silverio Garcia provides a tour of the old Elsmore school, laying out his vision for the Elsmore Sustainability Institute.Photo by Trevor Hoag

Whether it’s public dollars, grant money, multiple donations or a benefactor, the project is currently mired and looking for a way forward.

“I need a white knight,” Garcia explained. “I need a lot of community support.”

He’s already got quite a bit a manpower in the form of volunteers, but nonetheless needs donations or other financial means to continue.

But Garcia is increasingly seeing light break through cracks in the concrete.

The original boiler for the old Elsmore school. Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register

For instance, just this week he entered into a partnership with Grizzly Tools, who agreed to supply $20,000 in hardware for the ESI’s workshop. And not long ago, Walmart donated an impressive collection of young evergreen trees.

The list goes on in terms of potential community players.

As for his first community, Garcia is originally from Spain, came to the U.S. at 14, and went on to the University of Oklahoma to study engineering.

As an oil and gas engineer, “I traveled all over the world,” he explained.

His last gig was at British Petroleum, who eventually convinced him to retire with a “thrilling” package.

During his last year at BP, he’d started looking at properties for various projects, when he came across the life-changing words: “Abandoned school in Elsmore for sale.”

Silverio Garcia at the Elsmore Sustainability Institute. The old Elsmore school was built in 1935.Photo by Trevor Hoag

As for why Garcia came to envision the project in relation to veterans, this is not only because three of his four children are officers in the military (all four of whom he described as “incredibly awesome”).

“Everything I am today, I owe to this country,” he said. “I want to do what’s right.”

Garcia is animated by an unflagging belief in the American Dream and what it’s possible to accomplish here.

Hopefully some of that same spirit will drive others to share his vision and help transform his dream of a veterans initiative, the Elsmore Sustainability Institute, into a reality.

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