It was the winter of 1991 when Jeff Chase made a motion to divert Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA) advertising funds to U.S. troops in Desert Storm and their families at home. He had no idea that the program he started would last for 21 years.

Chase, president of Cox Engineering Co., is a member of SMACNA Boston, a New England trade association of sheet metal and air conditioning contractors. At a chapter meeting in a Boston hotel in 1991, he came up with the idea to aid military families.

“A lot of our employees and office staff were being called to serve in Desert Storm,” explained Chase. “We had been talking about buying advertising with the Boston teams — the Celtics and Bruins — to promote SMACNA Boston. It just came to me at the end of the meeting — why not give that money to the families of our troops instead?

“I just threw the idea out to the 25 SMACNA contractors at the meeting, and nobody dissented. It was unanimous; we didn’t need a formal vote.

“Desert Storm came and went quickly,” said Chase. “None of us expected that, 21 years later, our help would still be needed. The program was suspended after the end of the Gulf War. But when March of 2003 came around and our kids were asked to serve again in the Iraq War, we revived it.”

Today, SMACNA Boston uses money from its general operating fund to support military families, whether their member is deployed or actively serving at home. “Each family receives $900 a month,” said Chase. “SMACNA donates $500 and the other $400 comes from Local 17. Today, there are up to 15 families we are supporting at any given time. It’s just too bad our kids have to deal with this. They really shouldn’t have to.”

Tom Gunning is executive director of SMACNA Boston. According to Gunning, three of SMACNA Boston’s contractors’ sons have attended the United States Naval Academy and the United States Military Academy. “Supporting our military is a natural fit for SMACNA Boston’s charitable efforts,” he said. “Our troops sacrifice so much for our well-being at home. We need to remember how fortunate we are and take care of our own.” SMACNA Boston spends approximately $50,000 on military programs each year, with fluctuations depending on need.

Rick Donohue, vice president/treasurer at Harrington Brothers Corp., is another member of SMACNA. Donohue is an Army veteran. Drafted in 1972, he remembers serving in an unpopular war.

“A lot of us served at a time when it was not cool to be in the military. The day I was discharged, I was spit on at Oakland International Airport. If we can bring a little smile to a face of a lonely soldier far away from his/her friends and family, then it’s all worth it. We need to keep in mind that all the freedoms we have are because of their effort.” Donohue’s son, Evan, just enlisted in the Army and reported in October.

Donohue is one of the originators of CarePacks, an organization dedicated to sending care packages to U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a nonprofit organization staffed and managed entirely by volunteers and began with one package Donohue sent to his son-in-law eight years ago. Carepacks celebrated its 15,000th package sent on June 23, where it was recognized with a citation from the Massachusetts State Senate presented by Sen. Robert Hedlund, as well as a citation from the Weymouth town council and Mayor Sue Kay.

According to Donohue, this feat was accomplished with the help of many hands. “Through the end of 2011, we spent $170,000 on shipping and $202,000 on everything that went into the boxes. SMACNA contractors have been very generous to our cause.”

Jobs and Training

The contractor-members of SMACNA Boston pull their employees from Sheet Metal Workers Local 17 and have received the same commitment from the union leadership. The union and the contractors focus first on those members who serve in the military. Cox Engineering employs six of them — all through Local 17’s apprenticeship program and an affiliated national program called Helmets to Hardhats.

Harrington Brothers Corp. also enthusiastically employs military sheet metal workers from Local 17, including Stephen McKunes. He recently returned from a deployment and three activations in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. Having returned from a four-month deployment to the U.S. Reservist Forward Operating Base in Southwest Asia in 2009, McKunes was glad to have his apprenticeship spot waiting for him through the Helmets to Hardhats program.

McKunes had already gone through two of the five years of apprenticeship training at Local 17 when he was deployed for four months in 2009. “Then I came back to continue my apprenticeship, and the Air Force activated me three times to our home station at Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee [Mass.]. I spent seven months there in 2010, and about a month in 2011.” He also had a three-month activation in 2012.

McKunes was hired by Harrington Brothers and will reach journeyman status in the spring of 2013.

Help for Wounded Soldiers’ Families

SMACNA Boston donated $5,000 raised at a membership meeting last Christmas for the Fisher House Boston, which serves wounded soldiers and their families. Fisher House Foundation donates “comfort homes,” built on the grounds of major military and Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers. These homes enable family members to be close to a loved one during stressful times.

According to Jen Deluca, assistant to the board of directors, the $5,000 donated by SMACNA Boston was timely. “It just happened that last winter was the first time we’ve had to reach out to a hotel since our suites were all filled. We will never turn a family away,” explained Deluca. “That $5,000 enabled us to provide the hotel rooms our families needed.”

Tom Gunning stated, “We feel strongly at SMACNA Boston that as an employers’ association, we need to take care of our employees, our military, and our community.”

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Publication date: 1/28/2013