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Findlay sergeant’s single act of kindness launches effort to help military families

The gutters hung precariously on the house that icy day in February 2012, when John Lee pulled into the driveway to help.

The Air Force civil engineer, now a chief master sergeant, had returned from deployment one week earlier and heard about a couple whose gutters needed to be repaired but whose son could not help because he was on deployment.

Without hesitation, Sgt. Lee of Findlay packed tools in his vehicle and headed to the couple’s home. He cleared the ice, cleaned out the gutters and anchored them back into place.

“That is how it all began,” said Sgt. Lee’s wife, Sheri Lee. “He stood in the gap for his brothers and sisters that were far away.”

More calls for help came. When Sgt. Lee couldn’t fill a need, he’d find others who could.

“It was a snowball effect,” Mrs. Lee said. “As men and women were returning home from deployment, they were also offering to help.”

Within months, the Lees had organized Heroes Supporting Heroes, turning Sgt. Lee’s one act of kindness into a nonprofit organization to help others.

“We realized this service wasn’t just in our hearts, but [in] others as well,” Mrs. Lee said.

Heroes Serving Heroes isn’t only for members of the military, she said. “Everyone is a hero — whether you are a single mother or a senior citizen, you are still a hero.”

At a graduation party in June 2012 — just months after Sgt. Lee had repaired the gutters — the Lees met Don Steward and Jeff Lutz, who had formed West Allegheny Work Camp, an organization intended to help families who needed home repairs.

“We realized that our missions were aligned,” Mr. Steward said. “We decided instead of competing, let’s come together and be one.”

The Lees, Mr. Steward and Mr. Lutz went to the boards of their organizations with the idea of merging the two groups and then started the process of acquiring a nonprofit designation for Heroes Supporting Heroes.

Because West Allegheny Work Camp already had a relationship with West Allegheny Ministerial Organization, Heroes Supporting Heroes could receive charitable donations under the ministerial organization’s umbrella until it received its nonprofit status, which took about 18 months.

Through West Allegheny Work Camp, 300 to 400 workers would travel every other year from neighboring states to West Allegheny Middle School at their own expense to spend the week in service.

“Basically, it is like Habitat for Humanity, where they come to perform low-skill, high-labor jobs,” Mr. Steward said. Up to 75 families and homeowners have been helped at each camp event.

Now merged with Heroes Supporting Heroes, West Allegheny Work Camp is a primary project of the organization.

Another ongoing project is heroessupportnetwork.com — a  website filled with information for military personnel, veterans and the civilian community. It is a hub of resources, listing community organizations and services for those in need.

Airman’s Attic is also a priority, a service that provides an online display of slightly used appliances, furniture and other items that are available to the public.

Mr. Steward, now CEO and executive director of Heroes Supporting Heroes, described Sgt. Lee as a visionary.

The career serviceman was active in the Marines for four years and spent another two years in the Reserves. After a three-year hiatus, he joined the Air Force when he learned that Pittsburgh’s 911th Airlift Wing had openings for loadmasters for C-130 military transport planes. During his 23 years in the military, he has completed six tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is currently deployed to an undisclosed location until January 2018.

In September, Findlay supervisors nominated Sgt. Lee to receive a Community Impact Award. He will be honored Nov. 2 with other nominees at the Community Impact Awards Dinner, hosted by the Pittsburgh Airport Area Chamber of Commerce. Mrs. Lee will attend in his place.

Heroes Supporting Heroes recently moved to 7313 Noblestown Road in Oakdale, the former home of  Noblestown United Methodist Church, which announced its closing last year.

The site came to Mr. Lutz’s attention when he read an article about the congregation’s mission to find a new owner who would serve the community.

“They are talking about us,”  Mr. Lutz told Mr. Steward and Sgt. Lee.

In October 2016, the building was donated to Heroes Serving Heroes for $1.

Having a physical location is a critical step to acquiring grants, Mr. Steward said. So far, funding has been primarily from small businesses, community organizations and residents.

The group hopes to use the space as a community hub and incubator for other startup nonprofits. One organization, Defenders of Freedom, which helps post-9/11 veterans, already has an office in the building.

Amy Philips-Haller, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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