BT Hero House has arranged for service members and their families to stay for free in Marco Island, Florida since 2016. It’s founder is working to open a permanent location along Blackwater’s historic Main Street.

A Florida charity that gives active duty service members returning from deployments a vacation to reconnect with their families is expanding to Blackwater.

BT Hero House has arranged for service members and their families to stay for free in Marco Island, Florida since 2016. It’s founder, Brandi Tramazzo, is working to open a permanent location along Blackwater’s historic Main Street.

Foundation members want to give returning veterans a chance to reconnect with their families. Many service members deploy multiple times, leaving their families for months, Tramazzo said. A three-year-old child may not remember their parent after an eight-month deployment.

“I mean, the kids have grown three inches,” Tramazzo said. “(The service member) missed holidays, birthdays, soccer games. He’s missed so much.”

In 2016, U.S. Air Force Technical Sgt. Christian Leugers had just returned from an eight-month deployment in Kuwait when his first sergeant said he’d been nominated to stay in the Hero House in Florida. Tramazzo soon after announced that Leugers was selected to attend the trip.

Leugers was instructed to travel to Marco Island, a barrier island with a long beach, near the Everglades on the southwest coast of Florida. He went down with his wife and his daughters, ages four and ten.

Leugers retired last year from the U.S. Air Force after serving for 17 years. After his first two deployments to Qatar and Afghanistan, Leugers received two weeks of rest and relaxation. But that wasn’t much time to re-integrate with his wife and daughters after months apart.

A lot changes in eight months, especially when you’re not there to see it, Leugers said. Winning the trip offered a chance to reconnect with his family, without having to worry about going back to work.

“That one-week vacation gave us time to get to know each other again,” Leugers said. “There was no pressure, no nothing, just relaxing.”

The foundation accepts the amount of families it can fund through donations, Tramazzo said. She’s been serving more people every year, but never had a permanent place in Marco Island. That was only a dream until she found Blackwater.

Growing up in Kansas City, Tramazzo drove by the Blackwater sign on Interstate 70 as her family went to the Lake of the Ozarks. Tramazzo decided to drive into town for a pit stop during one trip down I-70 with her sister.

Tramazzo knew as soon as she pulled up to the windmill and the historic Main Street that she wanted one of the buildings for the foundation, she said.

Whiteman Air Force Base is only 55 miles away. Fort Leonard Wood and Fort Leavenworth are each about 130 miles away.

Like Marco Island, Blackwater is a quiet place where families can relax and spend time together. It’s the perfect place to reconnect for someone coming back from a deployment, Tramazzo said.

“This is going to be the romantic getaway,” she said.

Leugers and his family were welcomed at Local Marco Island businesses. Restaurants provided meals, and the family received tickets to the movie theater, zoo, and an airboat ride around the nearby Everglades swamps.

The communities of Blackwater and nearby Arrow Rock make for a similarly peaceful retreat, Tramazzo said. Two doors down, Kimberly’s Place offers breakfast. Dinner is served at the historic Iron Horse Inn across Main Street. Blackwater River can be accessed a short walk from the Hero House, and Tramazzo hopes someone will donate a canoe.

Families can also travel seven miles to Arrow Rock for a show at the historic Lyceum Theater.

The Hero House will be in the first building on Main Street past the Missouri Pacific Railroad tracks. It was built around 1914, as Blackwater was rising as a coal stop. The building originally housed a barber shop, restaurant and the Post Office.

The storefront furthest from the tracks, which was originally a restaurant, is now the Blackwater Treasures antique store, owned by Joyce and Bob Doty.

Doty said she sold the space to Tramazzo because she appreciated helping service members. It’s important to support the people who are willing to fight for us, she said.

Tramazzo has been renovating the space, along with her cousin, retired Army Sgt. First Class Aaron Perkins. Perkins mother, Norma Swanson, came in from California to build a black walnut table.

The community has also participated in the project. Proctor Building Materials in Tipton gave them a discount on two doors, and Jerry’s Heating and Cooling in Blackwater installed the HVAC. For a foundation with a tight budget, the money they saved makes a big difference, Tramazzo said. Volunteers Bill and Cindy Voight traveled came from Columbia to help, and Asa Hill from Blackwater has also greatly assisted in the project, she said.

The first task was building a shed in the backyard. They’ve installed new bathroom fixtures, water heater and washing machine and dryer, and have been working for a year and a half to remodel the space. They still have several months of work ahead of them, with major projects like running electrical, wainscotting, laying out a back patio and rebuilding the entrance still ahead, said Tramazzo. It hasn’t been a typical renovation. Criteria must be met to keep the building in the National Register of Historic Places.

The end of the project and opening of the Hero House is in sight, despite all of the challenges. Tramazzo hopes to open the Blackwater facility by the fall, if they can find a couple volunteers to finish some of the remaining projects.

“Fall is a gorgeous time in Blackwater,” she said.

bcrowley@gatehousemedia.com