VetsGarage occupies veterans hands and minds
By Emma Maple
For some veterans, finding activities to fill their day and keep their minds occupied can be difficult.
The VetsGarage in downtown Spokane addresses these concerns by providing tools and a space for veterans and community members to exercise their creativity and keep occupied.
"The concept of the VetsGarage is not unique," said John Pollack, technical director of the VetsGarage. "It's a makerspace, a place where there is a shop and tools. Typically, the tools are ones we don't often have in our house."
The population the VetsGarage caters to makes the organization different from traditional makerspaces.
"Most of the people here are veterans. That's who we're trying to help," John said. "We're not exclusive to them. Anyone can join. We subsidize the costs for everyone, but veterans pay less to become members."
Dennis Pollack, John's father, started the VetsGarage in 2011. Before founding it, he worked under contract for Washington State's PTSD program, which allowed psychologists to do diversified things.
"We worked with family members, spouses and children, which the Veterans Administration (VA) can't readily do," Dennis said.
With the state PTSD program, he worked with veterans from many wars.
"In seeing some veterans, I saw the need for a program similar to one I experienced when I was working with the VA in 1966 or 1967," he said.
The VA program, called Fairweather, was a place for people with emotional problems to keep their brains occupied and learn working skills. The VA used work-study to employ students to help the program and be there in a crisis.
"I thought there was a need, and veterans thought there was a need for a similar but different program. It would be a place for veterans to go and work with equipment on their own time," Dennis said.
This idea led to the VetsGarage, which opened its first location in a one-car, unheated garage.
In their early years, the VetsGarage worked with a county-owned building that formerly housed the Spokane County Veterans Outreach Center.
Dennis thought it was a good idea to combine what he was doing with what the county was doing.
One person who came through this program illustrates the heart of what the VetsGarage hopes to do in Spokane. When he and Dennis met, the man had been homeless and decided he needed some services. Through community help, he is now attending grad school.
Seven years after the VetsGarage opened, it had to relocate because the county needed additional parking. In 2020 it moved into a bigger space at its current location at 224 E. Pacific Ave.
The VetsGarage offers activities based on members' interests.
One of the most popular activities is wood turning.
"Most people like to work with wood," John said. "It's easy to make something useful out of wood. Everyone needs a table or needs to fix a chair."
The Inland Northwest Woodturners club supports the wood-turning activities. Twice a week, a club instructor comes to the VetsGarage to teach people how to use wood-turning tools.
"People can go from having no ability to making some beautiful projects," John said. "It's time consuming, but is a good way to use time."
The time-consuming aspect of activities may be one of the biggest benefits of the Vets Garage.
"We use the term 'a positive distracting activity'," John said. "The vets are creating something, and it's engaging their bodies and their brain just enough to keep their minds away from whatever may be an issue that day."
In addition to woodturning, the VetsGarage has computer numerical controlled (CNC) tools. These are computer-controlled machines that cut out whatever people design. In the past, it used the tools to cast metal jewelry by making patterns and molds. They have also used the CNC machine to melt down metal and turn it into a decorative piece, often dedicated to someone who had served.
The VetsGarage has just set up special tools so they can work with carbon fiber composites, which are used to build fighter jets and expensive cars.
Another activity they sometimes offer is metal sculpting. This involves forming a flat sheet of metal into something complicated, like a car part or a piece of furniture.
"The VetsGarage has all the tools here one would need. Maybe not all the tools one might want, but we have all the tools the vets need," John said.
Dennis continues to go to the VetsGarage and help about 10 veterans a week. One who is 66 has just been accepted for a full-ride doctoral program at a university in Australia.
The VetsGarage has about eight people who come in every day, and about 20 people who just come in sporadically, for an event or when they need a particular tool.
When the program first began, Dennis thought it would be easier to spread the word than it has been.
"Maybe I was naïve. When we first started, I thought that if we could involve 1,000 veterans in the Spokane area, for $10 a month, we could do tons. That never happened."
During the pandemic, the Occupational Therapy program at Eastern Washington University paused outreach projects, but that will resume this fall, and they will do some recruiting, John said.
For vets involved, the hope is that it can "give people a place to exercise their creativity," said John. "There are so many things that are hard these days. The cost for housing is high, and people are having a hard time finding housing they can afford. Many people are retired and are not used to things being as expensive as they are now. The VetsGarage is an affordable place where they can come and work on things."
"Many people who come in are having a tough time. They just need something to do, something they can create. Some may never have made anything out of wood," John said. "Then they create something, and it's a work of art. That's satisfying."
The VetsGarage provides a social environment that veterans may not be able to find outside of the garage.
"We work with people on a project, and banter back and forth. Time flies. We don't realize how much time has gone by because we've been so engaged in what we're doing," John said. "For many, this is their outlet, a place they feel safe."
When COVID hit, the VetsGarage struggled. John said there were people who didn't want to come in because of health concerns, and people who were not happy with the safety rules. They address these concerns to accommodate people.
The VetsGarage constantly struggles with affording materials and space. Most of its budget goes to rent. Dennis noted that nonprofits need someone dedicated to raising funds.
Even though the VetsGarage has been in operation for nearly 12 years, no one has been paid a salary.
The VetsGarage seeks reliable funding sources. They charge a membership fee, which they try to keep low. They also make things to sell to customers.
"That's something people can get together to do," John said. "Many veterans are happy to help raise funds by making things to sell."
Dennis tried to sell products at a table outside a warehouse store but made only one sale. Now they are considering advertising products on their website, clkelmore.wixsite.com/vetsgaragespokane.
They have received some grants, but Dennis said grant money doesn't last.
The VetsGarage invites community involvement. John and Dennis want people to visit VetsGarage to learn about it during its hours of operation from 1 to 7 p.m., Monday to Friday, and 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday.
They hope people experienced with shop tools will become part of the VetsGarage community.
"Because God gave me grace. I need to pass that on." Dennis said. "I just want to help people."
For information, email VetsGarage2015@gmail.com