The Angels Among Us
In the spirit of the holiday season, my columns for this month will feature friends and neighbors who make a difference in our community.
This week, I would like to introduce you to Gerald Lyons.
I was dropping our dogs off at Lyons Kennels for the family vacation last summer and noticed the owner's hat.
I had just come back from doing USMC trainings overseas and had a renewed appreciation for those who serve our country. "You are a Marine?" I asked. The older gentleman in his trademark suspenders who was helping me corral my insane dogs was Gerald Lyons. Marine. Business owner. Philanthropist.
Bellefonte native and Angel who walks among us.
Gerald Lyons is the driving force behind the Veterans Assistance Fund for Centre County Vets. The fund was created to assist Centre County veterans in their time of need. The story of how it started is one of giving and of giving back.
I met with Gerald Lyons without my dogs last week and asked him to fill me in on the Veterans Assistance Fund. A 1957 graduate of Bellefonte High School, Mr. Lyons is known in the region for his gruff demeanor, his kindness to others and his unfailing devotion to his country.
I had sent him an email earlier in the week asking if we could get together to chat and quickly received a response from his assistant, Peg. "Mr. Lyons doesn't touch the computer but he said you are welcome to come and talk to him." We met in the house, adjacent to the kennels where my dogs spent their summer vacation, that also serves as his office and retail store,.
The Veterans Assistance Fund for Centre County Vets works closely with the Centre County Veteran's Affairs office in the Willowbank Building. The purpose of the Veteran's Assistance Fund is to provide support for local veterans for services and expenses that either aren't covered by other veteran or government benefits or while they are waiting for those benefits to kick in. Referrals come through the county office, through the local VFWs, American Legions, and through general word of mouth.
In truth, Mr. Lyons has been providing assistance and support in the community out of his own pocket long before the formalization of the Veteran's Assistance Fund.
Several years back, Mr. Lyons heard of a local Marine who was waiting for his veteran benefits to kick in and who was essentially homeless. According to Mr. Lyons, homeless vets who apply for housing support must be able to front the first month's rent and security deposit to qualify. He offered the Marine $400 to get him on his feet.
Within a short time, the Marine came back to Mr. Lyons to pay back the $400 and the idea to start a fund was born. After the Welcome Home Charlie event in Bellefonte in April of 2010 (welcoming the local Charlie Stryker Unit 2-112 of the Pennsylvania National Guard home from Iraq), donations in support of vets came in totaling over $8000. With help from some Bellefonte business professionals, the donated services of attorney Joe Green, and initial sponsorship from the Faith Centre, the fund launched in 2011.
Although the impetus was the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, local veterans of all branches of the Armed Forces and all wars have been given assistance.
As we were chatting at the table, Peg came through on her way out to an appointment and put her hand affectionately on Mr. Lyons' shoulder. "He doesn't just help veterans. People come in here and he helps everyone. Even if people can't pay their kennel bills, he just says 'get it to me when you can.'" She says, "He's a big teddy bear."
Mr. Lyons shared the story of a local 87-year-old World War II vet who had no heat or electricity but was too proud to fill out the government application for support. The Veterans Assistance Fund of Centre County came to the rescue. Just last week, a vet was in need of emergency dental care right before the Thanksgiving holiday and Mr. Lyons personally called the dentist and said, "Send me the bill."
When I asked Mr. Lyons, why he feels so strongly about helping others, his response brought a lump to my throat. "It needed to be done," he says.
Mr. Lyons enlisted in the Marines as a Bellefonte high school student and "was on the train to Parris Island the same day that I graduated." He served in the 2nd Tank Battalion at Parris Island but was also a range instructor and served as security staff for the company commander as the Korean conflict was winding down. "That security job was a good one," he says with a smile.
"The Marines changed my life" he says. "I would have probably been in jail or in prison. I learned that there was more than just me and what I thought I wanted or needed." He came back to Bellefonte after his military service and opened the kennel at its present site in 1959. He says, "I got the idea from seeing guys who were deployed have problems making arrangements for their pets."
He also shared with me that when he came back to Bellefonte he didn't have any money. A local builder built the house where we were sitting and let the young Marine live there until he got his business rolling. That act of kindness provided the foundation for a lifetime of paying it forward.
The Veterans Assistance Fund uses 100% of donations to support local vets and widows of veterans. A board made up of veterans, business professionals and representatives from the county's VA office reviews the applications. The Veterans Assistance Fund is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and non-taxable donations from the public are encouraged.
Mr. Lyons also works closely with the local police department as well as local rescue groups to offer support for lost or stray pets. In sharing his story and the needs of the men and women who served our country, I saw tears brimming in the eyes of a man devoted to his cause. From sponsoring youth sports teams to helping the food bank, Gerald Lyons believes in giving back.
Communities like ours that aren't affiliated with military bases or installations often forget about the needs of those who have served. In this season of giving, please consider making a donation to the Veterans Assistance Fund for Centre County Vets. You can visit the group's website by clicking HERE or by contacting Lyons Kennels at 814-355-3974.
He doesn't do email.