SUMTER COUNTY, Fla. – The Villages has attracted one of the highest concentrations of veterans of any community in the nation.
Nearly 20,000 military veterans call The Villages home, and this week’s Getting Results Award winner tells us their donations and support have helped her nonprofit make a difference in the lives of others who are less fortunate.
Marie Bogdonoff started Villagers For Veterans in 2015.
The retired accountant was looking for a way to give back and after a visit to Walter Reed Medical Center, she found her calling.
The nonprofit is dedicated to helping veterans get the tools they need for independent living. Her current project includes remodeling a home in Fruitland Park that will become a transitional home for six formerly homeless women veterans. Bogdonoff calls it Ashley’s Cottage.
“This is going to be the living room and over here we’re going to have a nice modular for the TV,” said Bogdonoff, giving News 6 a tour. “Super excited to make this happen and we just love the idea of welcoming our women veterans here.”
Right now, the three-bedroom home is under renovation. The cabinets are torn out and crews will be updating the flooring and painting the walls soon.
“I never knew there were so many homeless veterans because you don’t see them on the streets,” Bogdonoff said. “They move in with friends and family. There’s a term of endearment they use called couch surfers.”
She said women veterans in particular have been in the shadows for a long time.
“So we’re welcoming them and giving them a hand up for them to transition and get a job, finish school, do whatever they need to live productive lives,” she said.
But Bogdonoff herself is not a veteran. She said her desire to help the veteran community started with a trip to Walter Reed Medical Center.
“That’s when I really became aware of the need,” Bogdonoff recalled. “The more I got involved, the more I realized it was up to small nonprofits to help.”
So she applied for 501(c)(3) status and began raising money for all-terrain wheelchairs and other mobility devices to help injured veterans. From there, Bogdonoff began sponsoring service dogs, added the program for women veterans and a Veterans In Need fund to help with bills, rent or other payments.
Kathryn Wilgus, vice president of Villagers For Veterans, is a retired nurse and combat veteran who served in Afghanistan.
Wilgus said she understands how many women find themselves without a home after leaving the service.
“I was homeless when I came out of the Army,” Wilgus said. “When I came out, I wasn’t close to my family. I didn’t have a place to go back home. And so where do you go?”
Wilgus went to live with friends. She found a job and saved her money. But she said many veterans aren’t as fortunate.
“So I understand the women we’re going to be helping, having gone through that. I’m a success story so I believe it’s time to pay it forward,” Wilgus said.
Bogdonoff was nominated for the News 6 Getting Results award by Sara Kallioinen.
“Her passion and her patience is just overwhelming,” Kallioinen said. “When I saw the Getting Results Award, I said, ‘That’s got Marie’s name written all over it.’”
CEO of Habitat For Humanity Lake-Sumter Danielle Stroud, who is partnering with Villagers For Veterans to contract the work on Ashley’s Cottage, agreed that Bogdonoff is an inspiration for a lot of people.
“I love it when I see people choosing to give back and they go into the nonprofit line of work as a second career,” Danielle Stroud said. “She’s a fantastic woman.”
Bogdonoff ruminated on the future of the organization as she looked through the French doors into the backyard.
“We certainly have a vision,” she said. “It’s been a wonderful journey and I don’t see it stopping any time soon.”
Update: The renovation of Ashley’s Cottage was completed in June. Bogdonoff is working with the V.A. to find vetted and qualified residents. The nonprofit is also close to breaking ground on Ashley’s House in Eustis. The home will help women veterans transition into civilian life.
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