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Military Museum reaches out: Major donation needed to keep doors open

By Staff | Apr 16, 2020

While many local businesses may be in danger of never reopening their doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a location in Cape Coral full of American history, relics of the past and a gathering spot for our nation’s heroes is in jeopardy of having to do just that.

The Southwest Florida Military Museum & Library has been a center for local veterans to gather where they feel safe and have access to the resources they need.

The museum has been a major asset to the area, having spearheaded Cape Coral being designated as a Purple Heart City, piloted the veteran banners you see along Cape Coral Parkway and have educated the youth of the region and beyond.

Now, they hope this veteran-rich community can help keep the doors open that double as a gateway to our country’s past.

“We’re hoping that some people from the community will step up to the plate,” said founder of the museum, Ralph A. Santillo. “We’ve been serving this community for 12 years and we do a lot; not only the museum, but our foundation that takes care of veterans.

“That’s another concern; not being able to take care of the veterans who come in for help. We have a lot of people who depend on us. But, we’re in here swinging. We feel a responsibility to all of the veterans who have come in here time after time, who rely on us. They feel safe coming to us.”

Their Veterans Foundation assists an average of 800 veterans each year by providing essential services that they require. The foundation equips local vets with PTSD counseling, obtaining military records, transportation, bus passes, gas cards, food distribution, career counseling, job placements, free legal advice and other areas that need attention that are not provided by Veterans Affairs.

The museum relies on fundraisers and events to stay afloat. With COVID-19 putting an end to any gatherings of people, Santillo and his staff are not able to generate any money via those crucial functions.

The museum needs to raise $100,000 to $200,000 to essentially “stay closed,” or to continue to pay the bills while operations are suspended, Santillo said.

He said they are also facing pressure from their landlord to pick up their $1.5 million option on the building to own it outright, a decision he said they originally had until May of 2021 to decide.

The museum pays a monthly rent of $13,000 per month.

“Without opening the door, I don’t know how to begin to (pay) that,” Santillo said.

The museum is unable to “turn everything off” as its contents could be severely damaged by warm temperatures.

“We have the responsibility of all of these artifacts,” Santillo said. “We’ve got precious items in here that would deteriorate in weeks.”

The museum was still open in the beginning stages of the outbreak, but quickly closed its doors due to many visitors being from out-of-state, combined with many of their employees being at-risk residents.

Stepping into the museum is like stepping into a time machine. Relics of past battles, uniforms, flags, and depictions of war time canvas the facility.

The museum features a Purple Heart Exhibit, highlighting Florida’s 360 Purple Heart recipients who died in action since Sept. 11, 2001.

Other exhibits accentuate the Revolutionary War, Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Korean War, Vietnam War and the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars.

They’ve been working for weeks to get support from the government but have “gotten nowhere.”

“We need help with everything,” Santillo said. “We have some hard decisions that we’re going to have to make shortly here. We’re really in a box. We’re not sure which way to go.”

The museum has been working on a limited schedule since March and are now closed to the public in every capacity.

Their always-popular free Tuesday luncheon for veterans have ended, and the many groups that use the museum to gather have not been able to meet for some time.

“I’d feel really guilty bringing all of these guys in and someone get the virus. I don’t know how I’d live with that,” Santillo said.

If the museum was able to hit its fundraising goal, Santillo said they would be able to take care of their expenses until late September, early October.

“We’d like to be able to stay in this building,” Santillo said. “It’s been 10 years in this building.”

As is, Santillo said the museum might be able to operate for 90 days, maybe more.

Moving would be a nightmare with the amount of items in the museum paired with finding an appropriate facility, he added.

“Up until now we have not asked for this type of assistance, but we are at the point in time that we can’t do this alone,” Santillo said. “I would appreciate any ideas or help you can lead us to in order save our place in the community. I am always available for discussion and would be glad to meet with anyone who can assist us.”

Santillo can be reached at 239-910-5699 or at ralph.santillo@veterans-foundation.org.

The public can donate by mailing a check to the museum at 4820 Leonard St. The museum is working to be able to take online donations.

For more information on the museum, visit www.swflmm.org.

-Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj