Writer / Alaina Sullivan
Photographer / Ron Stiemert
Dedication to a cause can take many forms. Walking cross country to help military families takes that dedication to a whole other level. Helping Hands for Freedom seeks to do just that through their Route for the Brave, a walk that will begin April 28 in Atlantic City and will finish August 26 in San Francisco. (routeforthebrave.org)
Helping Hands for Freedom, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting the families of fallen, wounded and deployed soldiers, was created by co-founders Retired Army Staff Sgt. Patrick Shannon, a resident of Fairland, Indiana, and a Perry Meridian graduate, and former University of Nebraska football and NFL standout Rodney Smith.
“While recovering in Walter Reed, Shannon, who is a two-time Purple Heart recipient and Bronze Star recipient, would go bedside and listen to the stories of fellow soldiers who told him that they would consider it an honor to die as that was what they signed up for, but their primary concerns were for their spouses, children and making sure bills would be taken care of and paid,” said Paul Gable, Helping Hands for Freedom Communication Director.
Helping Hands will be raising money to create a House of Healing retreat through money raised from the Route for the Brave. It will include six family suites for both Gold Star families as well as families where a service member has just returned home. Gold Star families are the surviving members of those soldiers killed in combat. The Gold Star was first created during World War I and is the only star not given to a soldier.
“We will be walking along U.S. 40, the road that built America, and we will go through several major cities, including Baltimore, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Kansas City and Denver, but I honestly believe the major milestones and points of emphasis will come in Small-town America when we connect with military families and hear their stories,” said Gable.
One of the men who will be walking every mile of the way is IMPD detective David Roth, a 22-year veteran.
“Three years ago, Roth came up with the idea of doing a walk across America to raise funds to help military families and build a house of healing, equipped with a PTSD center,” said Gable.
“The idea came about after watching several reintroductions with his stepson, Matt, who just finished his fifth deployment, and his children. When Matt’s daughter, who was 3 at the time, asked, ‘Who is that man?’ and it turned out to be her own father, Roth knew he had to do something.”
Kevin Winton, a 20+ year veteran math teacher at Beech Grove Middle School, is the second man dedicated to walking the entire way. “Winton has known many who have served, including former students, and sadly knows several former soldiers who could not adapt to regular life upon returning home and committed suicide,” said Gable.
The group did a test walk and were amazed by the support from people who were willing to buy them water and food, give donations or talk to the walkers.
“There was a lady we met in Terre Haute who invited us into her barber shop and talked to us for 15 minutes, telling us her family’s history in the U.S. Marine Corps,” said Gable. “That is what this walk is all about.”
The daily mile goal is no small feat. “The goal is to walk 30 miles a day, six days a week,” said Gable. “When we did our test walk across the state of Indiana last year, we made it 144 miles in just over four days.”
Helping Hands is completely driven by volunteers. They have one paid employee, which is their CEO, Indianapolis native Darin Fishburn.
The official headquarters is located in Phoenix, Arizona, but they maintain a strong presence in Central Indiana. The organization is currently planning one of its primary events, the Heroes Gala, which is set for April 12 at the Indiana Grand Racing and Casino in Shelbyville.
“This foundation means so much to me,” said Gable. “Being the son of a Vietnam War veteran and the grandson of a World War II veteran, this is my way of serving. I have countless friends and teammates from both high school and college that went on to serve in the military, several of whom struggle daily with PTSD. I firmly believe that the greatest gift we, as people, can give is one to someone who can never repay you, and daily, that is what we do at Helping Hands for Freedom.”