RUSKIN, Fla. (WFLA) — A retreat for first responders and veterans had never flooded, but Hurricane Idalia ended that streak and forced the non-profit’s founder to look for ways to repair the facility.
My Warrior’s Place sustained at least $50,000 in damage, according to Kelly Kowall.
“It was heartbreaking,” Kowall said. “Just heartbreaking.”
Kowall opened My Warrior’s Place in 2012 in memory of her son.
Army Spc. Corey Kowall, 20, was killed in 2009 while serving in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom.
Since then, his mother has welcomed about 60,000 veterans and first responders to the Ruskin property to give them somewhere to get away from the trauma their professions cause.
“Firefighters who try but can’t save a child. Police officers who think they didn’t arrive in time. Soldiers who see so much and come home with PTSD,” Kowall said. “They don’t get a day off to figure it out. This is a place for them.”
Kowall said visitors often form therapeutic bonds with others who have faced similar tragedies.
“There’s healing that happens just being able to sit around the firepit and talk. This place has saved lives,” she said. “I can’t tell you how often I’ve had someone come up and say, ‘You didn’t know it when I was here but I was contemplating taking my life and this place saved me.’ “
Kowall was equally emotional about the waves of volunteers who have stepped forward this week to help with the clean up.
Anthony Gravlee, the son of a veteran, did not mind that the work left him soaked in sweat.
“As long as everything gets done and gets put back together,” Gravlee said. “I’m okay. It’s too important to these firefighters, veterans, police.”
Kowall said the outpouring has been a great help.
“It renews my faith in mankind to know they care enough to come out here and sweat right along with us,” Kowall said.
Kowall said the non-profit’s decision against flood insurance was prompted by the fact the property has not flooded.
“It hasn’t flooded since we’ve been here. The old owner said it never flooded and the owner before that said it never flooded,” Kowall said. “Would we like to have bought flood insurance? Yes. Can we afford it? No. And it has never flooded.”
She said flood insurance was pegged at $11,000 a year when the retreat first opened and she believes it would be even more costly now.
“The cost is astronomical. We don’t have that kind of budget. We don’t have that money,” Kowall said. “We were barely making it month to month.”
Fishing off the property docks or using its boats is always free to veterans and first responders, Kowall said. Visitors are asked to pay a small donation to stay in the cottages, but Kowall said the budget is still tight.
By not spending money on flood insurance, she estimates My Warrior’s Place helped an additional 100 people a year.
“We have no deep pockets,” Kowall said. “We have no big corporate funding. There’s times when I don’t even know how we’re going to pay this month’s bills but somehow a check will show up right when we need it.”
She gives the credit for those surprise funds to her son.
“I feel his presence here all the time,” Kowall said. “I kind of put that on him. You know, making sure that we stay alive.”
Kowall does not have a time frame for how long it will take to repair the damage caused by the flooding.
“As soon as possible,” she said.