Members of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Coalition Florence VFW receive national awards

Published: 01/21/2022 13:18:32

Modified: 01/21/2022 13:17:35

HOLYOKE – The Veterans of Foreign Wars organization is presenting two former officers of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home with a national award for their service during and after the deadly 2020 COVID-19 outbreak at the home.

On January 23, the VFW will honor Paul Barabani, former Soldiers Home Superintendent, and John Paradis, former Assistant Superintendent of the Home, with the prestigious Above and Beyond Award for their work with the Holyoke Soldiers Home Coalition – a group that came together following the deadly outbreak that killed at least 77 seasoned residents of the home. The coalition continues to push for reforms and investments that will ensure a similar tragedy is not repeated in any of the state’s military hostels.

“This is a rare national award given to an individual who, through work, action and perseverance, has exemplified a service that goes far beyond supporting our veterans and their community,” said Troy Henke, a state surgeon at VFW Massachusetts said in an announcement of the awards.

The national VFW will also honor the Florence VFW Post 8006 with its Outstanding Community Service Post Award.

COVID-19 began spreading at Holyoke Soldiers Home in March 2020, killing around a third of all residents at the home within six weeks. After the tragedy, the Holyoke Soldiers Home Coalition began to form. Its members include family members of those who died during the outbreak, politicians, former caretakers of the home like Barabani and Paradis, experienced lawyers and others.

Since then, the group has lobbied for the successful passage of a state-level bond bill that would provide $400 million to rebuild the Holyoke Soldiers Home. The coalition has lobbied lawmakers to maintain local oversight of the Holyoke home and give the state Department of Health a greater role in the home’s day-to-day operations, and has pushed for better funding, more staffing and a day-care adult health program.

In an interview on Thursday, Paradis said he appreciates the recognition he and Barabani are receiving from VFW. But he said the award speaks much more to the work of the entire coalition as it continues to work towards a brighter future for the region’s veterans.

“You can’t do anything without teamwork,” said Paradis. “We are a coalition, and that means that if we pull together, anything is possible. And I think that’s been the big lesson of the last few months.”

While the coalition has achieved some successes, such as rebuilding the facility, Paradis warned there is much more to advocate. In particular, Paradis said coalition members are concerned about proposals to abolish trustee councils at the soldiers’ homes in Holyoke and Chelsea and replace them with a national advisory body.

“We fear they have little authority or would not serve our specific interests in the Western Mass,” Paradis said. Instead, the coalition envisions a board of trustees that has “a degree of independence and autonomy, and the strength and distance from the political process to enable them to truly advocate for the senior residents and their family members.”

The coalition also wants the board to involve the community in the process of nominating trustees.

Paradis said the coalition would not be what it is without the support of community members and organizations like the VFW.

“This was a real solidarity effort and it’s a textbook case of outreach and arousing people,” he said. “We had to do this.”

The awards ceremony will take place on January 23 at 12:00 p.m. at Florence VFW Post 8006.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at [email protected]

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