Mission United Photo

Ethel Stephenson, left, with Tom O'Brien, right, behind the new wheelchair ramp that Mission United volunteers built for her front porch.

James Helm, an 81-year-old Vietnam War veteran, ran out of running water. So he had to wash his clothes in the Tsala Apopka Lakes.

When Mission United Director Tom O’Brien got a call from him asking for help, he was right on it.

Mission United is part of the United Way’s initiative to assist veterans in need around the community. As director, O’Brien helps provide services that allow veterans to get back on their feet upon their return to civilian life.

“You get to meet a lot of people,” O'Brien said. “It’s the satisfaction of being able to help folks.”

For 20 years, the Crystal River native served all over the world as a dental technician in the U.S. Air Force. While still in the Air Force, he got a job assisting active duty military and military retirees — similar to what he does now — in Cheyenne, Wyoming. After retiring from the military, he worked for the Citrus County Health Department for five years and eventually taught at the Crystal River Health Academy for three years.

O’Brien has been with Mission United since May 2018. Whether he’s installing handicapped bathrooms, building wheelchair ramps, or finding homeless veterans a bed to sleep in, he makes life easier for those who put their lives on the line.

“They’re so grateful when we’re able to get this stuff done for them,” O’Brien said.

Currently, O’Brien is in the process of helping two local veterans get their wells repaired. One of them, James Helm, is 81 years old and lives with a physical disability; the other is a husband and father of five young children. Both suffered major health crises after going weeks without water, and the cost of the well repair is beyond their budgets.

“Helm’s had to dump water out of the lake to do his laundry,” O’Brien said.

O'Brien recently found a contractor to complete most of the well repairs, but there’s still more work to be done.

“Helm also has problems in his trailer," he said. "Holes in the floor, rats and mice getting into his place ... and those are only two of the clients I have right now.” 

When O'Brien started finishing the well work, two widows with damaged roofs called him for help. 

Ellen Tate, a widow of 86, has an outdoor art studio infested with mold due to a leak in the patio roof.

Meanwhile, Deborah McDannald needs a roof over her head and a mold-free kitchen. O’Brien has been working with the 70-year-old widow since February.

“McDannald originally requested to have the mold in the kitchen taken care of, but the storms that came in later on ripped her roof off the trailer,” he said. “Now, we can’t do anything until the roof gets fixed.”

Not everything is an instant fix, but Mission United’s clients have urgent needs. According to O’Brien, the struggle to find funding for major repair works is the reason some have to wait months to have clean water.

“Home renovations are so difficult because I have to go out and find resources that will be willing to provide services or material,” O’Brien said, “and it’s hard to find contractors who are gonna volunteer their time to do this.”

With the current level of community support, however, Mission United manages to get the job done. O’Brien thanks his individual and organizational sponsors, donors, and volunteers for giving their time and money to Mission United’s cause. Among his many sponsors are the Citrus County Veteran’s Foundation, Citrus County Veteran’s Coalition, Black Diamond Foundation, Home Depot, Lowman Law Firm, the Rotary Clubs, Nature Coast Ministries, and Living Water Ministries.

“I couldn’t do it without them” he said. “We’re just trying to collaborate and find the resources to get things done.”

Those interested in donating to Mission United can mail their donation to the United Way office at 1582 N. Meadowcrest Blvd., or call the office at 352-795-5483.

For more information, contact Tom O’Brien at 352-795-5483 or tom.obrien@citrusunitedway.org

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