KEY LARGO -- A non-profit aimed at aiding military personnel and veterans in the Upper Keys with the everyday struggles of life secured its first place of residence last month.
Ron Zaleski, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in the early 1970s and five years ago started the organization known as The Long Walk Home, is the one behind it all.
While the building resembles a home, Zaleski said he has big plans for its renovation. He is looking to transform the building into a 10,000-square-foot gym for veterans.
"The gym is an environment not conducive to drinking and drug use," said Zaleski, who spent 28 years in the gym business. "And that's what we need [for the veterans]."
While Zaleski acknowledges his plans are still on the horizon, he has begun renovating the building through the donated time of local carpenters and electricians. He said he is also in talks with the county regarding permitting to transform and expand on the building.
Many commuters traveling on U.S. 1 may recognize Zaleski as the barefooted walker wearing a sandwich board identifying the number of U.S. military veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and ultimately commit suicide. He said that number is at 22 a day.
The idea of walking without shoes is something Zaleski started shortly after his stint in the military as a self-imposed punishment to deal with "survivor's guilt." While he never saw action, Zaleski said he had many friends who made the ultimate sacrifice.
Zaleski coordinates weekly workshops that bring in experts to enlighten veterans and their families on issues such as anger management, domestic abuse, purchasing a home and the Baker Act. The workshops, open to the public, are held from 6 to 7:30 p.m. every Thursday at the organization's building near mile marker 97, oceanside, across from Denny's. Meetings were previously held at the Garden Club of the Upper Keys.
A handful of veterans in attendance at last week's workshop said they were thankful for everything Zaleski has done for the community.
The Long Walk Home is holding a musical fundraiser featuring the Blue Fire Band from 6 to 9 p.m. April 11 at the Coral Shores Performing Arts Center, mile marker 89.9, oceanside. Tickets are $20 in advance or $25 at the door and can be purchased at Betty's Health Foods, Mr. C's Gourmet Ice Cream, PostNet, Shear Paradise, Mrs. Mac's Kitchen, Old Tavernier Restaurant & Lounge and the Upper Keys Humane Society. Complementing the concert, the event will also offer two auctions and a 50/50 raffle. All proceeds will benefit construction of the gym.
For more information on the organization, visit thelongwalkhome.org or its Facebook page by the same name.