Helping Heroes Offers Second Chance to Veterans and This Historic Wheeling Building

It has been said that a soldier writes America a “blank check” upon entering the service, the value of which is up to and including that soldier’s life. This willingness of America’s veterans to sacrifice for our country has earned them our abiding gratitude. They sacrifice their lives, their time and their relationships to keep us safe and free, and they often struggle to adjust to civilian life once their military service ends. 

Since 2010, Helping Heroes, Inc. has been supporting veterans suffering from mental health, substance use, financial, family and work issues. Our veterans who find themselves having difficulty in these areas are at increased risk of becoming homeless, and Helping Heroes aims to help vets navigate these and other barriers to permanent housing. According to the U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the homelessness rate for the entire veteran population is about 3.7 percent over a five-year period, and unmarried veterans or those diagnosed with substance use disorder are more than twice as likely to be homeless than other groups of vets. Giving a “hand up” to homeless veterans is Helping Heroes’ mission and focus.

R.J. Konkoleski is Helping Heroes’ Chief Executive Officer and holds the group’s goals close to his heart. “Though we have an eloquently-worded mission statement, our organizational philosophy can be summed up in only three words: ‘Help the veteran,’” he shares. “Our staff sees behind the homelessness, the substance use, the criminal history – whatever the world sees first – and we look at the human being who is in a difficult situation.”

  • Helping Heroes staff (from left) Marci Clyburn, R. J. Konkoleski, Jeremy Harrison, Susan Harrison, Darren Cofer and Taylor Adams (Photo courtesy of Helping Heroes).

Humble Beginnings and Growing Pains

Helping Heroes was founded thirteen years ago by combat veteran Jeremy Harrison and his wife Susan. Konkoleski says that all the couple had at that point was “a vision and faith.” The Harrisons worked with local community visionary Bill Hogan to develop a business plan that would eventually grow their effort to its present-day status. Dedicated volunteers and grassroots donors worked together to turn a dilapidated building in Moundsville into functional office space and three transitional housing apartments. Eventually the group relocated to the former Ohio Valley Medical Center property when their data showed that 75 percent of their clients were from Wheeling. When city officials announced that OVMC would be razed to make room for a new regional cancer center, Helping Heroes was forced to relocate to temporary office space in the McLure Hotel building at 1200 Market Street.

During the pandemic, the group identified new needs in the community they serve and expanded their staff and their services in response. This growth created the need for a bigger space where they could house all their programs under one roof, which led them to the long-vacant former Columbia Gas building at 44 – 16th Street. They purchased the building in April 2022 and quickly began planning and architectural work. Selective demolition and asbestos abatement started that fall and construction is currently underway. Renovations are expected to be completed between the end of this year and early next year. “The renovation of 44 – 16th Street will expand services and restore a vacant, historic property in downtown Wheeling,” says Konkoleski. He also reveals that the Helping Heroes team is excited about the location of its new headquarters. Having their services in a central location that offers easy walking access to health care, employment, education, public transportation and other community-based services is a real plus for their clients. 

Helping Heroes serves about 300 local veterans and their families each year. They offer emergency shelter, transitional housing, various support services and a food pantry. These services are open to veterans in Hancock, Brooke, Ohio, Marshall and Wetzel counties. 

Renovation Plans and Funding

Helping Heroes’ new building and its renovation are funded through a number of sources, including Federal Historic Tax Credits, New Market Tax Credits, a Congressionally Directed Spending request, Federal, County and Municipal grants, and donations by both corporations and individuals. Nine local private foundations have also invested in this major undertaking. Konkoleski states that half of the funding has already been secured for the project and Helping Heroes is now in the final push to secure the remaining funds needed. Plans for the six-floor building call for first-floor retail space, three housing floors with a total of 15 individual units, and two floors of administrative space to house the group’s 12 offices plus two conference rooms.

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  • The former Columbia Gas building prior to the start of renovations (Photo courtesy of Helping Heroes).

The building is over 60 years old, having been constructed in 1961. Helping Heroes plans to create a thrift store space in the original lobby area. The store will serve two purposes: residents of the housing program can obtain needed household goods for their living spaces, and they can also work in the store to earn an income as they strive to become self-sufficient. 

Much of the original flooring, tile and stonework will be restored to its former glory. The familiar Wheeling-themed mosaic on the front of the building will be cleaned, repaired and re-grouted. One of the first repairs will be to the roof, which is currently leaking and causing the basement and first floor to flood when it rains. Konkoleski notes that the group was surprised to learn that there is a 12-space parking garage in the basement that will also be restored and utilized by the staff. 

In addition, the building will need significant updating to meet current required criteria such as ADA-compliant accessibility, a sprinkler system, a modern elevator, and private bath facilities in each of the individual housing units. “The ability to house veterans in our own emergency shelter allows us to make quick contacts and reduce barriers for communication with the veterans as we assist them with finding and maintaining permanent housing,” states Konkoleski. “It creates a continuum of care in which a veteran can progress from the shelter bed through assessment into our Service Intensive Transitional Housing or Supportive Services for Veteran Families. We can quickly provide intensive case management and provide the maximum level of support to the veteran.”

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The programs offered by Helping Heroes are funded through a combination of sources, including the Veterans Administration, grants and private donations. Konkoleski notes that donations are needed more than ever now that building renovations have begun. To donate to Helping Heroes, you can visit their website or mail a check to them at 44 – 16th Street, Wheeling, WV 26003. Konkoleski is happy to meet with prospective donors and corporate partners to discuss their programming and to tour the building site. In addition, Helping Heroes’ food pantry is always in need of non-perishable goods, which can be dropped off any weekday at 1200 Market Street between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Another way you can support Helping Heroes is by participating in “No One Walks Alone” walk scheduled for June 17. As part of Nexstar Broadcasting’s annual Founder’s Day of Caring, WTRF-TV is organizing the “No One Walks Alone” walk to raise awareness about veteran suicide and to make sure each and every veteran in the Ohio Valley knows that there are resources available. You can register and make a donation here

Helping Heroes is pleased to be able to help return a rundown building to usefulness. It’s apparent that this is a group that believes firmly in fresh starts. “It’s never too late to do better than before, and miracles do happen every day,” says Konkoleski. “It’s important to me to be involved with an organization that holds those same beliefs and puts them into practice in a very real way each day. We believe in second chances, third chances, and beyond. We believe that everyone deserves a chance at redemption.”

If you or someone you know could benefit from the services offered by Helping Heroes, please call their office at 304-232-0114.

• Ellen Brafford McCroskey is a lifelong resident of Wheeling and a proud graduate of Wheeling Park High School, where she discovered her love of writing as a member of the yearbook staff. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Human Resources Management at the former Wheeling Jesuit College. By day, she utilizes that degree at the international law firm where she is employed. After work, you can find her relaxing with family, friends, and her clowder of cats.