After serving in the Army for many years, veteran Richard Melching Sr. found himself in a new battle – he was struggling with severe migraines and depression.
He eventually discovered something that made his disability more bearable, and is now sharing it with others.
In August 2015, Melching moved out of a dark basement and to a picturesque property on Kaskaskia Road in rural Waterloo, complete with two ponds.
“When I got my (Veterans Administration) disability I was able to buy this place, and I went right down to the (large) pond. And I cried and I was like, ‘I’m still disabled, but it’s a little easier to take looking at this than looking at a fluorescent light … and I want to share this with fellow veterans,” he continued. “The thought of suicide does not cross my mind near as often as it used to, and that’s because of where I live, so I wanted to share that.”
It was then that the concept for Dude’s Playground, named after Melching’s loving wolf dog, was born.
Today, Melching’s property hosts a nonprofit organization for veterans with disabilities to come and find comfort in nature, just as he has.
A ramp that leads from the driveway down to the large pond allows veterans with wheelchairs or other disabilities to get up close and personal with the water – something they often do not get to do at other non-accessible locations.
Melching estimates that since the organization’s inception, it has hosted 20 events, the most well-known being its fish frys.
“We have a holding tank for the fish. We’ll have able-bodied veterans come out here early in the morning to catch fish just in case we don’t catch any fish. I used to have these events at 10 a.m. and that’s not a great time for fishing, so we know we’ll at least get enough fish in there to be able to do lunch,” Melching explained. “When everybody gets here, we actually pull them out, clean them, fry them, eat them right here in front of everybody. That is really cool; they really enjoy that because they don’t get close to that stuff.”
For many veterans, fishing is not the main objective for a day at Dude’s Playground, though.
“They don’t have to catch a big fish, if they do it’s great, but it’s just not the atmosphere,” Melching said. “Us Monroe County people, we don’t realize how beautiful of a place we live in because we see it everyday, (but) a lot of people don’t. A lot of people live in an apartment or basement or whatever and they don’t get this beauty – especially wheelchair accessible beauty.”
The veterans who visit Dude’s Playground find there is another special effect of the gatherings, whether it is just two veterans or eight: it gets them talking about things they never had before.
“Most of my guys are Vietnam vets at this point,” Melching said. “I got a letter from a niece of a veteran that said, ‘I live with my uncle and he never talks about Vietnam, and he came back from your place and he started talking about it. He smiles!’”
The very veterans Dude’s Playground was created to serve actually helped coin the name, Melching said.
“When we first started this, it didn’t have a name,” he explained. “Five years ago I got Dude and I had an event and one veteran goes, ‘Man, this is just one big playground for Dude!’ Dude is the center of attention … and he is just the most friendly, gentle animal you’ve ever seen in your entire life. It was a no-brainer; everybody looked at each other and I was like, ‘That’s the name of it. Dude’s Playground.’”
Melching specifically thanked several local businesses for their support, including Schneider’s Quality Meats, Crazy Train, Outsider and Vintage Wine Bar.
As a previous local business owner, this support means a lot to Melching.
“We live in the best community in the state of Illinois, there’s no doubt about it,” Melching said. “We’re the most giving country in the world, but this community, what we do is above and beyond and it’s always been that way.”
Before the pandemic, Jefferson Barracks’ extended care and rehabilitation program hosted what Melching described as luncheons, which would include veterans with disabilities who live independently and those who reside at the hospital. At these luncheons, Paralyzed Veterans of America and other organizations would discuss activities for veterans with disabilities.
Melching often spoke about Dude’s Playground and invited veterans in attendance out to the property. He said these luncheons helped him learn what projects need to be completed at the property in order to serve a wider variety of veterans with disabilities.
The biggest need is an Americans with Disabilities Act compliant bathroom. Melching explained that at previous Dude’s Playground events he was able to rent a porta potty designed for individuals with handicaps. However, this is not accessible for all of the veterans who attended the luncheons.
“My biggest thing is we don’t have a (stationary) bathroom yet,” Melching said. “We need to have a nice, sterile place for people to change their catheter should they need to (and meet other needs).”
As of now, veterans can go up to the lake, but Melching is hoping to bring them literally onto the lake using a pontoon.
“We’re going to build it up to where it’s basically a great big floating dock,” he said. “Everything will be legal (and) everybody will have life jackets and things like that. I want to get them on the water.”
Melching’s to do list also includes expanding the ramp to reach other areas of the property and finishing a waterfall.
Those looking to help Dude’s Playground meet these goals can donate via the Dude’s Playground Facebook page.
The next event at Dude’s Playground’s will be from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. this Saturday, Nov. 13. Melching will host 10 veterans with disabilities – these veterans need not be in a wheelchair – and each veteran may bring a guest. Veterans will be provided lunch.
Because space is limited, interested veterans should contact Melching at 618-781-3658 or reach out via the Dude’s Playground Facebook page.
The general public is welcome to stop by from 1-3 p.m. for snacks, drinks and to enjoy the nature.