Veterans and their advocates were celebrating the completion of updated, handicap-accessible restrooms at an American Legion post in Sloan Friday morning. But they looked back on a recent tragic fall at another local post. In light of that incident, Erie County Clerk Michael Kearns and the American Institute of Architects are announcing that an urgent assessment of handicap accessibility at other veteran posts is underway.
On October 6, 2018, 87-year-old Korean War veteran Norman Racki fell down stairs inside American Legion Post 721 in South Buffalo and died of his injuries. There were no elevators available for his use.
That accident was remembered during a ribbon-cutting ceremony held at the Frank L. Gierlach Post 1320, where restroom updates include wider door frames and more space within the men's and women's spaces to allow easier access for all guests, including those confined to wheelchairs.
The cost of the project to upgrade the restrooms was $50,000 and was funded entirely by a donation from businessman, philanthropist and veteran Russell Salvatore. He said when he got a tour of the building and saw the bathrooms, he needed only seconds to decide he would cover the cost of renovations. He joked that the $50,000 is "just a couple of nights home from the casino" but turned serious when discussing the need to support upgrades at veteran posts.
"I'm surprised that somebody hasn't taken the ball and started doing something a long time ago," Salvatore said. "There are so many people out there. I'm pretty sure not only Russ Salvatore would pitch in and help. When they say it's for your veterans, you've got to be a little bit sick to say no."
Kearns and the AIA began a project in 2015 in which the latter's member architects offered pro bono work to survey and assess capital improvement needs at various local veteran posts. The Veterans Post Restoration of Erie County, a not-for-profit involving the American Legion, AMVETS, 40&8, Marine Corps League and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts, has collectively addressed shared needs.
Kearns, who was a State Assemblyman when that project got underway, called Friday's dedication a first step in a journey.
"We still have 14 other posts and we're going to need more donors," he said. "We're going to need more Russ Salvatores. We're going to need more corporations.
World War II veteran Mike Budowski is among those who were present for the ceremony. Until about a year ago, he wore a prosthetic leg and was able to move with the use of crutches. But for health reasons, he explained, his doctor advised him to make a permanent switch to a wheelchair. That created a problem. He was no longer able to get through the bathroom door nor the main entrance without the help of his wife. Often times, he explained, he'd have to leave functions within the hall simply because of the need to relieve himself.
"When you're running a post like this and you're having parties, the restroom facilities are a must," Budowski said. "If the veterans, especially the handicapped ones, don't have a facility like this, they do have discomfort and they suffer a little bit."
As for American Legion Post 721, Kearns says he has helped secure $250,000 to install an elevator at the building.
"(The City of Buffalo) is working on completing the grant with the State of New York," he said. "They're in the process of doing it and they're working very hard on it."
The Clerk's Office has also raised more than $14,000 for veteran post needs through a flag card sale at auto bureaus which began last year.