Late soldier's mission lives on in help for homeless vets

Nicholas Madaras of Wilton was killed in Iraq in 2006.
Nicholas Madaras of Wilton was killed in Iraq in 2006.

Bridgeport - Nicholas Madaras wanted to share his passion for soccer with the children in Iraq and restore a sense of normalcy, if only briefly, amid the chaos of war.

Madaras showed his family pictures of kids, smiling in front of buildings destroyed by bombs, while he was home on leave in 2006. He was amazed they could be so joyful, living with such uncertainty.

"He was just taken with that, that's why he wanted to connect with them, and soccer balls were his way of connecting," said his mother, Shalini Madaras.

Madaras asked his parents to send him soccer balls to hand out in Iraq. He never got the chance.

One month later, on Sept. 3, 2006, Army Pfc. Madaras, of Wilton, was on a foot patrol in Baqubah, Iraq, when he was killed by a bomb. He was 19 years old.

Since their son's death, Bill and Shalini Madaras have sent 35,000 soccer balls overseas. For the past four years Shalini Madaras also has raised money for a new transitional home in Bridgeport for female veterans who are homeless. She said Nick always has been a part of the project.

His soccer ball and cleats were prominently displayed at the annual fundraising galas. Many of the committee members live in Wilton and knew Madaras.

Then this summer, the winds from Tropical Storm Irene drove a soccer ball at the home, wedging it between two decorative cornices near the roof.

"It's like he has been part of our committee all along, always," Shalini Madaras said. "And that soccer ball going in the top of the house, that just put the cherry on the cake. Like, there's no question."

The Pfc. Nicholas A. Madaras Home, at 66 Elmwood Ave., will be the state's first community-based transitional home exclusively for homeless female veterans and their young children. The ribbon cutting is Friday morning, on what would have been Nick Madaras' 25th birthday.

"As sad as we are, I like to believe we celebrate his life every day with all of these good things that come from him," Shalini Madaras said.

On a typical night, more than 75,000 veterans nationwide are homeless, and about 135,000 spend at least one night a year in a homeless shelter, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. While white men make up the majority of homeless veterans between the ages of 31 and 50, the number of homeless female veterans is growing.

Women typically make up 10 percent to 15 percent of the approximately 640 homeless veterans in Connecticut.

Preston Maynard, director of the homeless program at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System, said it is difficult to know the true number of homeless women because they are more likely to stay with friends or family than to go to shelters and soup kitchens.

Each month 40 to 50 new people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless seek services from VA Connecticut. Maynard said they are doing a lot of outreach to women and women with children.

"There is a high number of women serving in the military, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they are coming home to a lot of the same issues that men are coming home to - a lack of employment and a lack of affordable housing," he said.

Lack of women's housing

The state has few transitional housing placements for women; out of more than 150 beds only about a dozen accept female veterans. Linda Schwartz, the state's veterans' affairs commissioner, said the resources for women with children are even more limited.

The veterans' home in Rocky Hill does not allow children and many shelters have similar bans, Schwartz said.

Fifteen homeless women and children younger than 2 years old will live at the Madaras Home for up to two years while they receive health care, counseling and job training, as well as help looking for more permanent housing.

The Applied Behavioral Rehabilitation Institute Inc./Homes for the Brave, an organization that oversees two housing programs for male veterans and a veterans' service center in Bridgeport, will manage the program for the female veterans. Joy Kiss, the chief executive officer, said the organization was beginning to plan a home for women about four and a half years ago when she met Shalini Madaras.

At the time Madaras and her husband, Bill, had created a new foundation, Kick for Nick, to collect soccer balls and send them overseas. ABRI/Homes for the Brave partnered with Kick for Nick to establish the home.

They received a grant for about $850,000 through a Department of Veterans Affairs program that funds community agencies that provide services to homeless veterans and raised about $350,000, Kiss said. The VA will help contribute to the operating expenses, Kiss said, but Shalini Madaras is already planning next year's gala for May 5 in Norwalk to support the home.

She said she never would have thought there would be a home for women named after her son, after all he was "so, so shy" that he didn't date anyone until late in his senior year at Wilton High School.

Wanted to be a nurse

Nick Madaras, the oldest of three children, spent his weekends on the soccer fields in Wilton as a player, youth coach and referee. He liked the teamwork and the camaraderie of the sport, as well as of the military. He left for basic training soon after graduating in 2005.

Soldiers in his unit have told the family that Madaras would tell jokes to lighten the mood in stressful situations. After a close call with a roadside bomb, each soldier was supposed to say they were OK. Instead Madaras said, "Geez, that really sucked."

The sergeant who related the story told the Madarases that they just had to laugh and it alleviated the tension.

Madaras wanted to improve people's lives, his mother said, whether it was through his humor, his career path, or by sharing his love for soccer. He had planned to return home and study to become a nurse.

"As much as the tears come in my eyes when I talk about it, in my heart there is just the joy of his spirit being so present in all of these things, in everything we've been doing," she said.

"He would be extremely pleased," she added. "And I think he would be very proud."

j.mcdermott@theday.com

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