With lots of work, JONAH readied for new role as vets center


The JONAH Community Center in Oakland Beach has been a hub of activity lately, as three local non-profit organizations that cater to military veterans, as well as the George Schmeider Memorial Association, now have offices there.

While the Women Veterans of America (WVA), Disabled American Veterans (DAV) and Rhode Island Military Organization (RIMO) have partnered with JONAH to create the Warwick Veterans Service Organization (WVSO), which aims to provide more direct services to veterans in the community, the George Schmeider Memorial Association teamed up with JONAH to reconstruct a new playground at the facility.

Schmeider, a longtime wrestling coach at Warwick Vets who grew up just a few streets down from JONAH, dedicated his life to helping children and loved Oakland Beach. The association consists of his family, friends and members of the community who want to continue his legacy of helping others, especially children.

“George had such a big impact on myself and the community, so I felt like the only way to keep him alive was to redo the park that he grew up on,” said Gary Costantino, a close friend of Schmeider who started working on efforts to establish a memorial the day after Schmeider’s death in December.

“His dream was to redo that park and instead of dwelling on his death, it is a way of turning a negative to a positive and get everyone more involved in the community.”

The association broke ground at JONAH about a month ago. Since then, they tore down the old basketball court and built a new one with supplies donated by Cardi Corporation. Other local companies pitched in, including Gary J. Perry Paving, Inc., which offered labor free of charge toward the project, and Rainone Landscaping, which landscaped the entire park.

Other organizations made contributions, as well. The Elanna L. Zuller Memorial Sports Fund donated $2,000; the Warwick chapter of the National Softball Association staged a tournament in April that raised more than $5,000, while All State Insurance donated $10,000. The project is estimated at $200,000 when labor and materials are factored in.

Tomorrow morning at 9, All State representatives from Philadelphia will visit the park and assist the association with a community cleanup day. Costantino is looking forward to showing the group’s biggest donor the work they’ve done.

“It’s not just going to be a basketball court – we’re going to have functions like dances at night and an outdoor movie theater by putting a screen on the back of the building,” said Costantino, noting that they also installed new slides and swings at the park, along with security cameras. “We opened up the area so people can bring chairs and watch family movies or sporting events like football and baseball games to get the community together.”

While the association will hold a ribbon cutting ceremony June 29 at 10 a.m., the WVSO’s ribbon cutting will commemorate Flag Day, which is tomorrow, and begin at 11 a.m.

The Toll Gate Jazz Quartet is going to perform, and Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson, a co-founder of the Rhode Island chapter of Women Veterans of America, said she is working on having sixth graders from Oakland Beach Elementary lead the group in the Pledge of Allegiance. Light refreshments will be served.

“We have quite a number of veterans in this area that are excited that there will be a direct link for veteran services at JONAH,” Vella-Wilkinson said. “That’s not to say they weren’t providing services to veterans before; they did, but now JONAH is going to be providing direct services for female veterans who require advocacy through the VA, disabled vets, and veterans in career transition.”

Staff Sgt. Anthony Paolino, an active member of the Rhode Island Air National Guard and chairman and CEO of RIMO, a non-profit that helps transition vets back to civilian life after serving overseas and informs them about available career and education options for the future, is looking forward to the ceremony. He’s pleased to have partnered not only with the other veteran groups, but also with JONAH.

“We’ve been excited for a while and it’s finally coming to a head now,” said Paolino, who for the last week has been on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. attending several hearings regarding the VA and education for veterans. “As a non-profit, we can specifically focus on the needs of veterans and tailor our programs to what the current needs are.”

Vella-Wilkinson pointed out that many veterans want to get more involved in the community. One resourceful way to do that, she said, is to connect them with Volunteers of Warwick Schools, or VOWS, an organization that offers tutoring services to local schoolchildren for free.

“If our teachers are overworked and there are so many kids that need assistance, we could potentially add to the VOWS program with veterans,” said Vella-Wilkinson.

She also said JONAH Director Beverlee Sturdahl, who has been offering services to the facility pro bono since 1981, along with Council President Donna Travis, who oversees Ward 6 and is a longtime JONAH advocate, have been instrumental in welcoming the organizations to Oakland Beach.

“Beverlee and Donna Travis have been our biggest champions,” Vella-Wilkinson said. “They’ve helped us get settled in the building and provide us with any guidance we need. They are like our Godmothers.”

Another big helper has been Patty Martucci, the volunteer coordinator for the RSVP program at West Bay Community Action. Vella-Wilkinson called on Martucci, a local artist, to hang military memorabilia, as well as photos and plaques depicting Oakland Beach, throughout the community room.

“I was honored when Camille asked me because several of my uncles were veterans,” Martucci said. “I’ll always have a little place in my heart for our veterans. It’s great for the building to have a wonderful, new veterans group.”

Vella-Wilkinson collected many of the items, including a plaque that once belonged to Rear Admiral Samuel Gravely Jr., the first African American admiral in the United States Navy.

When he retired in 1980, Vella-Wilkinson, a Navy vet, was in recruiting duty. A public affairs officer from the recruiting command obtained eight boxes of items and Vella-Wilkinson ended up getting two boxes full of memorabilia.

Over the years, she gave some of the plaques to enlisted individuals in recruiting duty and divided the rest among officer recruiters. She also presented plaques to various organizations in honor of Black History Month for several years.

But she held on to one.

“This is actually my last plaque of his and I thought it would be nice to have it here,” she said. “There are some really cool things here. It’s history. It’s really interesting when you look at this stuff.”

In addition to housing the organizations, JONAH is active in helping the community through scholarships for students and fundraising for those in need. JONAH offers free meeting space and is equipped with a large community room that’s rented to the public for various gatherings. To book an event, call 739-2219.


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