The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs Medical Foster Home Program has given 1,000 veterans the chance to live with families instead of a nursing home

Credit: Chris Churchill

Under one roof in Greenville, Indiana, lives three war heroes, two parents and six kids. While the arrangement might seem unusual, no one in this house bats an eye at it.

Sarah and Troy Rufing, along with their kids — Hannah, 14, Matthew, 11, Sophie, 10, Sam, 7, Catherine, 5, and Clover, 3 — decided to welcome veterans into their home. All with uncertain futures due to illness or injury, the servicemen found themselves unable to live on their own or with family.

But they weren’t on their own as a result of the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs Medical Foster Home Program. Army Sgt. William Sutton, 53, Sgt. Charles Hughes, 87, and Army Cpl. Robert Schellenberg, 89, now live with the Rufings in a three-bedroom wing the couple added onto their home.

Troy, 44, and Sarah, 41, are both caregivers who help the men bathe, dress and carry out other daily activities. The Rufings are among 700 participants in 44 states currently hosting disabled veterans in their homes. Most of the 1,000 veterans involved have serious chronic conditions.

“Veterans living in this type of setting tend to thrive and often have fewer hospitalizations than those who are living alone or in institutional care,” says VA program coordinator Lori Paris. “This environment really enriches the lives of both the veterans and the remarkable caregivers who accept these veterans into their homes.”

Along with the joy and comfort these veterans receive from being with a family — and not in a nursing home — each veteran receives at-home visits from VA health-care professionals, including doctors, occupational therapists and psychologists. The rest of their care falls to their foster caregivers—who receive an average stipend of $2,400 a month per veteran—and are on call 24 hours a day for everything from meal preparations to laundry and housekeeping.

For much more on the Rufing family, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

Sarah says she feels grateful and lucky to be able to help.

“It’s like having your grandparents live with you,” she tells PEOPLE. “We’re one big family.”

The veterans say they feel like they’re home with “extended” family.

“They take care of us,” Hughes says. “They’re all just so sweet and nice.”

Adds Sutton: “This place has become home. I feel very grateful.”

Schellenberg, who was diagnosed with dementia in 2015, needs the most amount of care.

Troy and Sarah became interested in the program in 2013 after Troy witnessed firsthand how rewarding the program was. His mother, Ruth, 76, joined the program in 2003 — and hosted 16 veterans over 15 years.

Sophie and Sam Rufing with veteran Charles Hughes
| Credit: Chris Churchill

“I saw how satisfying it was for everyone,” says Troy, whose father was also in the military. He and his wife Sarah have taken in five veterans to date (two of whom have since passed away).

The family of 11 have each transformed and grown in their own way because of the program.

Sutton arrived at the Rufing home in 2015, two years after he lost both legs to complications stemming from diabetes. At first, “he was closed off and didn’t really leave his room,” says Sarah. “But today he’s walking — and not slowing down. Every day he takes a 10-minute walk to the mailbox and says that ‘this place has really become home.’ ”

The kids feel lucky to have the three veterans live with them as well.

“I’ve learned to be very patient,” says Hannah. “It’s given me perspective a lot of people my age don’t have. They’re like our blood relatives.”

Hannah, enjoys bird-watching with Hughes — who relies on a wheelchair after injuring himself in a 2017 car accident — and encourages her siblings to help out with chores. At night, the family watches movies with the veterans, and when the Colts are playing, everyone tunes in together to cheer.

“That’s the whole thing about this program,” says Troy. “It’s a family, and veterans feel like they’re at home, like they belong somewhere. We feel like we were meant to do this. And we plan to help for as long as we possibly can.”

How to Help

More than 82,000 veterans are currently living in nursing homes, while another 38,000 are struggling with homelessness. For more information on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Foster Home Program and how you can foster a vet, contact your local VA medical center.