By Mark Miller
CHICAGO, Nov. 11 Vicki Thomas was at an age
where many people look forward to retirement. She had enjoyed a
successful career in public relations and marketing, including
stints at a financial services trade group, a major television
network, and running her own Connecticut-based marketing
But Thomas flipped on the television one day in 2009 and saw
something that launched her on to a new career at age 64.
It was a CNN feature about two combat-wounded veterans of
the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who had started a non-profit
organization to provide housing for wounded soldiers.
Dale Beatty and John Gallina were injured when their Humvee
hit two antitank mines in November 2004. Beatty was left as a
double amputee while Gallina sustained back and head injuries.
Thomas was riveted by their story, and before she knew it,
she was on the phone cold-calling them to volunteer her
Thomas signed on as director of communications for Purple
Heart Homes, the non-profit that Beatty and Gallina started in
their hometown of Statesville, North Carolina. She has since put
her 35 years of experience to work, raising millions of dollars
for Purple Heart Homes - in cash contributions as well as
donations - and helping the founders with a dramatic expansion
of the programs.
This Veteran's Day, Thomas' work is being recognized with
the Purpose Prize, a unique award given annually by the Encore
Careers campaign, a nonprofit that works to engage baby boomers
in encore careers with a social impact.
The prize, which is in its eighth year, recognizes encore
career trailblazers over age 60 who have demonstrated creative
and effective work tackling social problems. Thomas and another
winner will receive cash prizes of $100,000, and five others
will be awarded $25,000.
This year's Purpose Prize winners also include a veteran who
organized volunteers to teach disabled vets to combat stress
through fly-fishing; a cancer survivor who founded an education
and support organization for Latino patients; an immigrant who
advocates for the rights of domestic workers; a social activist
who founded a support organization for families of prisoners; a
public health expert fighting to eradicate an infectious
parasite carried by river snails that afflicts people in West
Africa; and a former parish pastor who created a religious
refuge for the homeless on the streets of Philadelphia. (More
about all of this year's winners can be found at)
Thomas grew up in a small, rural Wisconsin community during
the Vietnam War. In an interview, she tearfully recalled high
school assemblies where the principal regularly announced the
names of former students who had been killed in action.
"It made such an impression on me - to see an All-Star
basketball player come home in a flag-draped coffin and to see
the families, my neighbors, weeping," she said.
During the course of her career, Thomas had worked in
marketing and communications for the Credit Union National
Association, and at the American Broadcasting Co. She was
running her own marketing company in Weston, Connecticut, when
she learned about Purple Heart Homes.
"I was doing well, but felt a need to go back to what drives
me, something was missing," Thomas said. "9/11 happened and
changed our nation. And we were in another war. Was it a good
war, the right decision? I didn't agree. But when I saw Dale on
television without his legs, I just wanted to help them."
Purple Heart Homes focuses on a problem where the need is
great - 3.2 million veterans have service-related disabilities,
about 14 percent of the total, according to the U.S. Department
of Veterans Affairs. Many face challenges with homes that lack
accessibility features such as wheelchair ramps or stair lifts,
and many do not have the money to make the necessary changes.
Thomas drew on her experience working with credit unions to
start a program that leverages donations of foreclosed homes to
provide affordable home ownership for young veterans. Banks and
cities donate the homes, Purple Heart raises money to do
renovations, and provides financial counseling to veterans who
may have spotty credit scores.
She found a credit union - Peach State Federal Credit Union
in Georgia - to issue special 15-year mortgages worth 50
percent of the home's appraised value. The program is structured
so that the borrower can own the home free and clear after 15
years. She also restructured another Purple Heart Homes
initiative that funds home modifications for older veterans who
do not qualify for assistance programs.
She has overseen an expansion of the budget from less than
$100,000 to $3.2 million this year and a projected $6 million
next year, which should allow Purple Heart homes to increase the
number of homes it completes - currently around 40 annually.
Fundraising also has allowed her to draw a small salary.
Thomas is 67 now, and showing no signs of slowing down.
"It's an honor to know I'm making a difference," she said.