Back in the days before I-10 was the main highway, Hwy 90 was the way to go from Orange to Vinton and other points east. In the stretch of road east of the Sabine River bridge was a line of night clubs, lounges and just plain beer joints. Easternmost on this stretch was the Shady Rest Motel. At the front of the property was the building that housed the motel office and a small lounge with a small dance floor, and a few pinball machines and pool tables.

Years after the highway was relocated, the motel closed, and all the other places closed and were torn down, a man named Bert Stigen breathed new life into the rundown motel property.

Bro. Bert as he is known, felt the Lord had placed a burden to do something for homeless veterans of the U.S. military. These men were down on their luck, broken in spirit and needed a place to re-group and try to get their lives back together.

Stigen retired from a Lake Charles chemical plant, drew out his retirement and bought the Shady Rest to give the homeless vets a home. For the past 25 years the property, now known as the City of Refuge (COR), has operated funded solely by donations from the private sector. Donations have ranged from food, to money, to materials to build the log cabins that have replaced the old motel rooms.

“We operate without any government assistance of any kind and depend on donations to keep our doors open. It is a faith based project,” said Stigen.

The section of motel rooms has been replaced by the log cabins with the ability to house four men in each cabin. The bathrooms are handicap accessible as are the walkways that connect each cabin under the common porch. The tin roofed cabins are kept neat, one of the rules of residence. “There are not many rules to get in here, but there are a lot of rules to stay here,” said Stigen.

The residents have to stay drug and alcohol free, do daily chores according to a duty roster, and attend chapel services four times each week.

In 2010, as part of their class reunion, the 1964 class of Lutcher Stark High School began a project to identify members of their class who were veterans and have a ceremony at the reunion to honor those vets.

They were able to identify and account for 40 veterans of the class. After the reunion the vets decided to loosely organize and form the Veterans of the Class of 1964 Association. There are 28 active members. Jerry Gatch became the organizations head, by default, he says. Gatch found out about Stigen and the City of Refuge. Gatch contacted Stigen and was moved by what he had done and is continuing to do with the City of Refuge.

Gatch began to contact the other vets in late 2010 and they decided to become a part of Stigen’s effort. The ’64 vets planned a picnic.

Once the goal was set; the vets went to work getting donations and involving other members of their class. There is even a “ladies auxiliary.” Pat Butler Dyson is handling the receipt of money donations. Wanda Holts Reinert got on the telephone and started collecting food donations for the potato salad, beans, coleslaw and other “fixins” for the picnic.

March 19 was set as the date and things started happening. Robert’s Meat Market donated enough meat to feed a small army. Retired 1st Sgt. Lloyd McDonald of the vet’s association went to cook’s school in the army and manned the grill to cook the hamburgers, sausage and boudain from Robert’s.

Dyson, Reinert and the other ladies got donations for goodie bags and door prizes. Dyson’s church, Calder Baptist of Beaumont donated 20 bibles for the bags. The bags were burlap with the crests of each branch of the military imprinted on the front along with the logo of the vet’s group.

Gatch bought veteran’s caps for each branch of the service to present to the vets at the COR.

Class of 1964 vets who attended were: Jerry Cotton, Dallas; Jerry Gatch, who moved from Las Vegas to Orange; Richard Hall, Orange; Mickey Henges, San Antonio; Mike Humphrey, Jasper; Andy Kelly, N.C.; Lloyd McDonald, San Antonio; Trudy Mosley, Orange; Barry Randolph, Bridge City, Tommy Vice, Orange; Bill Williamson, Fla.; and Chuck Wilson, Ohio. They were aided at the picnic by Dyson, Reinert and Carol Johnson Simar.

The tent set on the front of the property was fronted by flags of the six branches of the military around the flag pole with the American flag. Three tables were loaded with the food and the 14 residents of the COR were pleased and touched by the attention shown them.

Gatch’s guys and girls made sure that each resident had a door prize, goodie bag and a loaded plate. Stigen arranged for the Caney Creek Gospel Band of Vidor to give a concert of gospel music. The band was joined by McDonald who is not only a good cook, but also has a great voice. In addition to being a trained cook McDonald was also a chaplain’s assistant and put his Stark High School vocal training to good use.

“We were lucky to come from a generous class. We did not spend all the money we collected on the picnic and we plan to start a fund to try to collect enough to build a cabin. Some of the residents had some stories that touched us,” said Gatch. “We are all comrades in arms; we just served in different places, at different times. Our group plans to continue to support the City of Refuge and hope that we can encourage others to do the same.”

“I plan to keep this place running as long as God lets me,  said Stigen. “We have room for more residents and we want to continue to help those that need a little help along the way. We welcome any veteran that is down on his luck. I am 72 and will keep going as long as the good Lord keeps me healthy enough.”

For information about the City of Refuge and to make donations, please call 337-589-4407.