Columnist John Paradis: ‘What could have been’ for Holyoke Soldiers’ Home

  • An ambulance arrives at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke on Tuesday, March 31, 2020. Gazette file photo

  • An architect’s rendering for a new design for a new wing at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. The wing would lodge 120 single, private rooms, organized into 12 homes for greater independence, safety and ultimately a much-improved quality of life for veteran residents. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Published: 5/7/2020 3:24:14 PM

At the state-run Chelsea Soldiers’ Home this year, contractors laid the foundations for a new $199 million long-term care facility targeted to open in 2022.

Described as state-of-the-art, the state says it will provide aging veterans with new, modern facilities.

What does the state-run Holyoke Soldiers’ Home get? Read on.

In the spring of 2013, I had just started a new position at the Holyoke home. On an easel in my boss’ office was an architect’s rendering for a new design for a new wing in Holyoke. The wing would lodge 120 single, private rooms, organized into 12 homes for greater independence, safety and ultimately a much-improved quality of life for veteran residents.

For my boss, Paul Barabani, then Holyoke’s superintendent, the design was two years in the making after he was appointed to run the state facility, now known infamously across the nation for having the worse outbreak of COVID-19.

I think of the rendering often when reading and listening to the latest news reports about the number of Holyoke home residents who have passed away from the deadly virus. I also bring it up when speaking with reporters about my time there.

Amid all the speculation about the investigations into the outbreak and the who, what, when and where of this horrific tragedy, that design for a new Holyoke wing says a lot about state government, bureaucracy and politics.

It’s also a tale of two cities: Holyoke, some 90 miles from the state capital, and Chelsea where their veterans’ home sits atop Powder Horn Hill, overlooking the city of Boston.

It’s a tale overlooked in the recent discussions about the pandemic’s invasion and the deaths of more than 70 veterans at the Holyoke home.

Why? Because Gov. Charlie Baker signed the bill in 2017 to approve the bond legislation for the new 154-bed Chelsea facility. The same bill directed the state to study the long-term care needs for veterans in Holyoke. That’s it — a study.

Does the Chelsea project sound familiar to veterans in western Massachusetts? It should. It’s similar in scope as a project first proposed for Holyoke nearly a decade ago, right down to the same architect, Payette of Boston.

Barabani, an Army veteran and the Chicopee son of World War II Veteran Delfo Barabani Sr., launched his own plan in 2011 for a new 120-bed wing, an addition to the current Soldiers’ Home, following inspections by the federal U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that wrote-up Holyoke for safety and fire code violations.

Veterans in Holyoke, many of whom fought in some of the greatest battles in World War II, were bunched up, sometimes three to four to a room, sharing a small door for exit. The VA inspectors rightly noted there would be egress issues if there were a fire, not to mention challenges with providing proper care in such a closed environment should there be a contagion like the flu.

The plan would also have renovated the current building at Holyoke with a design of no more than two veterans per room. It would have eliminated community bathrooms. The design matched VA standards and incorporated trends toward a “small house” concept that promoted greater independence for longer periods of time.

Think about how this could have helped offset the spread of COVID-19 during the current situation.

Ultimately, Barabani secured a VA construction grant that would cover 65% of the $116 million cost. For state veteran home construction grants, states are required to pick up the remainder of the costs. At $40 million to the state taxpayer, that’s a bargain in my book. If you don’t believe me, look at what the state pays in a year for UMass athletics.

Together with improved staffing, we believed this would reboot care for veterans here in western Massachusetts from the post-World War II rest home model to a modern 21st century home-like and personalized care model that a state-funded commission had already said in 2016 was the way to go.

In 2013, Barabani and myself presented the plan to legislators. In the meeting was then Massachusetts Secretary of Veterans’ Services Coleman Nee. He stood up after our presentation and praised our team for our initiative.

At that point in time, the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home had done nothing to address their situation, which include veterans residing in antiquated open bay and multiple-person rooms. Nee then went on to say that DVS was seeking a large bond bill to include renovations to both homes. But DVS, he said, would hold onto our plan until Chelsea had a plan.

In the meantime, we also started to work on a design at Holyoke to meet a huge demand in the community for an adult day health care program. A state-approved design would repurpose both existing indoor and outdoor space at the Soldiers’ Home to accommodate 40 veterans a day. Again, VA would cover 65% of the cost. The cost to the state was then about $2.7 million.

Then a change in administration occurred and we were told in early 2016 that the state was not looking to build any new construction and both our plans were “off the table,” as then state Under Secretary of Health and Human Services Alice Moore told us.

Down came the architectural renderings, down came the dream.

But in Massachusetts, not all things are created equal as we all know too well in western Mass. So in a complete slap in the face, Chelsea played insider trading and, in just one year’s time, jumped to the head of the line.

By 2017, with backing from Gov. Baker of Swampscott and House Speaker Robert DeLeo of Winthrop, the entire state legislative delegation got behind the $199 million new construction. You didn’t hear a peep from the new superintendent or board of trustees in Holyoke, nor from our western Mass. State House representatives, so we have only ourselves to blame.

But Holyoke got a nice consolation prize — a promise to do another study.

Later this month, politicians will gather on Memorial Day to remember our war dead. They will no doubt also memorialize the veterans who died from the current war against the insidious COVID-19 that entered the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke and caught the state by surprise.

I will then think of that architect’s rendering in the superintendent’s office in Holyoke and think about what could have been.

John Paradis, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, lives in Florence and writes a monthly column for the Gazette. He can be reached at
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