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Veterans help goes a long way

Herald & Review - 9/25/2017

Sept. 25--DECATUR -- Anyone who has had the fortune of meeting Shawn Taylor will quickly learn of his passion for gardening.

"Nothing is better looking than a straight row of vegetables with no weeds," he said.

His green thumb rubs off onto people, motivating others to get involved as well.

Help 4 Heroes was one of those who helped Taylor grow his passion. Now his garden has expanded past his backyard to parts of Decatur.

Help 4 Heroes is a program established by the Macon County Veterans Assistance Commission in 2016. It was designed to assist veterans with everything from fans to coats. Veterans often visit the office for meal cards, gift cards, gas cards and bus passes. Help 4 Heroes has also provides safety shoes, clothing for a new job or funds for school books. During the summer they distributed fans, cooling towels and water to veterans in need. This winter they will provide small ceramic heaters, clothing and gloves.

"It is my hope no veteran is left in need of everyday essentials," said Ayn Owens, creator of Help 4 Heroes.

For Taylor, that assistance was a tiller for his garden.

Taylor is a 35-year-old Army veteran from Decatur. He joined the Army four months after Sept. 11, 2001.

"Everybody wanted their shot at bin Laden," he remembered.

He was in the military for a year with the rank of Pvt. E2 and was discharged due to a knee injury. After Taylor returned home, he worked in fast food restaurants, fell into addiction and eventually found himself homeless. He often visited the downtown Veterans Administration office for assistance.

"I got a bus card from them every month," he said. "Sometimes they would surprise me with a meal card."

He learned the cards were supplied by Help 4 Heroes, but quickly found they could do more for him.

"We are trying to get people back on their feet," said Greg Collins.

Collins is one of the three-person committee for Help 4 Heroes, including Owens and Kathie Powless.

All of Help 4 Heroes funds are donated. In less than a year, the program has raised approximately $25,000 with the Howard G. Buffett Foundation matching five times that amount. The organization has collaborated with various local businesses, including Texas Roadhouse, Rainstorm Car Wash and Fleet Feet.

"I am most proud of H4H because 100 percent of the monies go to impact the lives of our Veterans," Owens said. "No administrative fees."

Help 4 Heroes has been able to provide assistance for more than 200 veterans. Veterans may need to apply if they are new to the VA office.

Along with helping with essential needs, Help 4 Heroes has a goal of encouraging confidence and independence in veterans.

"Sometimes the things that we do play a bigger part in a bigger role," Taylor said. "Help 4 Heroes just gave me a leg up in doing something bigger."

Searching for various ways to learn a craft, Taylor signed up, with apprehension, for a gardening class through Mercy Gardens, a project created by Decatur is Growing Gardeners (DIGG) and the Good Samaritan Inn.

"I told the teacher 'I kill things. I don't know how to grow anything at all.' I couldn't even keep flowers," he said.

His first attempt at gardening was cauliflower. During the process, he often visited the public library researching soil health and other aspects of gardening. He watched the seed grow into a plant and found a passion, but wondered what he could do with it.

"I thought of community gardens," Taylor said. "They help everybody out."

Taylor visited the downtown veterans office often discussing his new love of gardening, but also the aches and pains associated with it.

"He has a rake and a shovel to garden with and that was all," Powless said. "We knew he needed help."

Taylor received his tiller on June 7.

"The only requirement asked of Taylor is that he do something to help others," Powless said.

Since then, Taylor has communicated with leaders and other members of the community about the vacant lots throughout Decatur. His conversations included the positive points of community gardens, such as bringing neighborhoods together, decrease in crime and providing local food. "Instead of just one area, let's make it city wide," he said. "The neighborhood grows by how much the gardens grow."

Taylor researched communities and vacant lots as well as rooftop gardens, including the roof of the local library.

"We can educate the children on how things grow and actually have them see it," he said.

Taylor has procedures he will need to follow before the gardens become a permanent part of the community, including organize a meeting with interested people as well as find sponsors and land with a three-year lease. His plan is to be able to feed 15 homes in each neighborhood. "I'm looking for something the whole neighborhood could be involved in," Taylor said.

The veteran believes he is an example of what can happen with a little assistance and persistence.

"I never thought my greatest passion would be on my hands and knees in the dirt," he said.

dbeckett@herald-review.com|(217) 421-6983

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(c)2017 the Herald & Review (Decatur, Ill.)

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