Lettermen of the USA gives local veterans a fresh start

Photo: US Army veteran Michael Durham stands in the kitchen of his newly furnished home. (Courtesy of Darryl Fuhrman.)

By Emma Kirkemier, News Editor

US Army veteran and Gadsden resident Michael Durham was homeless and suffering from numerous health conditions when he was taken into the care of the Lettermen of the USA.

Durham served in the US Army for eight years.

Durham enrolled in the Interiors for Heroes program, which saw the Lettermen completely furnish his Gadsden apartment. After several weeks of work, Durham’s home was completed over the weekend of July 4th.

The project included “everything from the flat screen TV to the washer and dryer to the bed, the mattress, the linens, the tiles, the dish soap [and] fridge full of food,” said Lettermen President Darryl Fuhrman, a 1983 Southside High graduate and former University of Alabama football player.

“All they do is carry the clothes on their backs and come in the door,” Fuhrman said. “And this is Interiors for Heroes. This is the program that helped Michael Durham on July 4th.”

The transformation of his home affected Durham in a number of ways.

“Thank you all for everything you’ve done,” Durham said. “The Lettermen of the USA did everything for me. You changed my life.”

When the Lettermen first took notice of Durham, he was “one of the worst cases” Fuhrman had ever seen.

According to Fuhrman, Durham’s health and finances suffered. He was displaced during a hospital stay and left homeless. After Durham lost his wife to COVID-19, he had almost nobody and nothing. Back then, the U.S. Lettermen helped provide temporary housing to Durham.

“He really got a lot of attention from us,” Fuhrman said.

According to Fuhrman, former Auburn footballer and Gadsdener Ernest Wallace was instrumental in making Durham’s apartment a home.

Wallace is a 1989 graduate of Litchfield High School.

“[Durham] lives in one of the local housing units here in Gadsden,” Wallace said. “I helped the young lady move his things from the house, a bed and things from the living room, you know, a television. It was very nice.”

Wallace said he enlisted the help of two young men who lived in the same complex.

“I said, ‘You know what? Y’all wanna make some free money?’” Wallace said. “They said, ‘Yes sir, what do we have to do?’ I said, “Tell you what, help me get this furniture over here.” And two kids that I just happened to take with me helped me and the other lady move all the stuff in.”

Durham also told Wallace that he was grateful for his help.

“You know, he had a prosthesis,” Wallace said. “He told me he served; He was a soldier. He was an upright guy. He kept saying he appreciated it.”

Lettermen President Fuhrman is an old friend of Wallace’s, who said he has supported both his friend and the US Lettermen “from the beginning.”

“Except that he’s from that other school, [Fuhrman] does a lot of great stuff,” Wallace said. “A lot of former football players from Alabama and Auburn are heavily involved.”

Lettermen of the USA was founded and supported by football graduates from Alabama and Auburn University. The program began in 2011 when former Alabama and Auburn players from across the country reunited to raise tornado relief funds by hosting a flag football Iron Bowl game.

“We had a kind of saying when we started doing this,” Fuhrman said. “We’re friends 364 days a year and on day 365 we fight like hell.”

Wallace agreed, praising the collaboration Lettermen fosters. He noted that there is more camaraderie than rivalry between former players.

“After soccer and stuff you guys stay friends,” he said. “They remain supportive. We’re talking a bit of rubbish, but other than that, when someone needs to get something done, a lot of players from Alabama and Auburn put their skills together and make it happen.

Wallace said Durham’s project was one of the few times he was able to help with a project in Gadsden and expressed hope for more local work in the future.

“It was the first time the guy had come from the area and I had no problem with it [work],” he said. “I wish they had more outreach programs like this.”

However, according to Fuhrman, Lettermen will soon be expanding some of its programs.

Interiors for Heroes is one of its main programs, which also includes Homes for Heroes, Utilities for Heroes, Wheels for Heroes, Autographs for Heroes, and Laptops for Heroes.

Homes for Heroes, which aims to end veteran homelessness, will address this challenge with new approaches, Fuhrman said.

Lettermen partnered with the Fisher House, which Fuhrman called “the Ronald McDonald home for veterans and their families,” to bring Alabama’s first Fisher House to the Birmingham area.

Although this facility will not be in Etowah County, Fuhrman mentioned several local partnerships through the Central Alabama Veterans Collaborative.

Anyone who would like to donate to the Lettermen of the USA or join as a volunteer can visit lotusa.org.

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