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Casey Christie / The Californian

Debbi Keen volunteers her time restoring the large VFW Post 97 sign on South Union Avenue.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Volunteering her time, Debbi Keen works on restoring the VFW Post 97 sign in front of their organization on South Union Avenue.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Debbi Keen is busy restoring the large VFW Post 97 sign on South Union Avenue on her own time.

The spirit of the place notwithstanding, VFW Post 97 is a mess. Part of the building was once a chicken coop. There are holes in the ceilings, the swamp coolers are rusted, the water main broke recently and the parking lot is gravelly dirt and 10 years past needing new asphalt.

But the sign announcing the post's presence? That thing is worthy of the scores of men and women who have fought and sacrificed on behalf of their nation.

It sparkles and gleams thanks to the hard work of a woman who, until four months ago, was minding her own business in the kitchen and bath department at the Home Depot on Ming. When her boss asked her if she would use her artistic skills to help

the veterans with their sign, she had no idea at the time how the project not only would make her an impassioned advocate for veterans, but that it would awaken in her a commitment to give back to her community.

It also gave her heat stroke.

A 'two-day project'

Exhausted as the physical surroundings might be, the post still hosts bands, barbecues, meetings and Christmas dinners attended by mostly older veterans. There are thousands of veterans in Kern County, and 340 call Post 97 home. The challenge is attracting the younger crowd.

"This is not a place where younger veterans want to hang out," said local veterans advocate Jeremy Staat, who asked Home Depot for helping with the sign project.

Enter Debbi Keen, who was approached by the store's operations manager, Sheena Cline, about freshening up the 10-by-30-foot sign.

Cline thought it might be a two-day project. Some sanding, primer, paint and -- presto -- a new sign.

Except it wasn't that easy.

"The moment you put a brush stroke on anything, you own it," Keen said.

Own it she did. At first, Home Depot let her work on the sign during store hours but when that became untenable, Keen spent her days off, vacations and mornings and night at the post. Much of the time, she was 40 feet high on a scissor lift.

"I'm afraid of heights, and I had some panic attacks," she said. "I had to suck it up."

She started at the end of September; her first day was 105 degrees. One day she suffered heat stroke because of the warmth radiating against the white background. Hot turned to cool and cool to cold. During the last couple of months, Keen has had to run the heater in her car to thaw her latex paint. Work became more work when Keen, Staat and their fellow volunteers were forced to remove all the neon, fabricate a side panel because of the rust and then fill holes with gallons of Bondo.

Five months, 10 gallons of paint, several gallons of primer, one meltdown that required the aid of her industrial-painter husband, and hundreds of hours later, the sign was finished. On Tuesday, Keen installed the decorative medallions, packed her car and went home.

"When I think about the challenges we've had with the sign, they pale in comparison when you think about what the veterans overcame in the South Pacific, Guam, Europe, Vietnam," Keen said.

"What I did was no big deal, but it was my small way of thanking them for what they did."

It just made sense

Restoring the sign has given Keen a lot of time to think and to talk to veterans as they came and went at the post. And though the sign was a much greater undertaking -- in time, commitment and personal grit -- than she thought it would be, the path she took made sense for a woman who lives on Faith Avenue.

"You've got to have a lot of faith to do this," she said.

If your travels ever take you on South Union Avenue south of Pacheco Road, right next to Union Market, look on the east side of the road. There will be a big, bright, beautiful, shiny sign.

It was a small thing, and it wasn't.