Bill Johnson comes from a family of military men. His father, his grandfather and two of his uncles served during times of war. His call to arms came when he stumbled upon an injustice involving a single American patriot.
Johnson, a New Lenox resident who operates Guardian Services, wasn’t always the head of Homes4Heroes. He was an ordinary citizen working with a community group called Operation Care Package out of Joliet.
The group provides basic supplies to the troops, the list of items running the gamut from hand soap to toothpaste.
In his line of volunteer duty, Johnson met a disabled veteran who had been nursed back to wellbeing and given a wheelchair. One hitch: The VA didn’t have the money to build the wounded warrior a ramp so he could enter and exit his home in Shorewood.
Johnson built the ramp himself.
When he finished the job, he was informed he unwittingly violated several village building regulations. He was asked to take the ramp down.
His response: No.
“I said, ‘The thing is built,’ ” Johnson said. “ ‘If you want to take it down, do it yourself.’ I made some calls and got some legal advice. I learned the best thing to do moving forward was to form a charity organization myself.”
Man on Mission Not Easily Deterred
Homes4Heroes was born.
Today, Johnson serves as president of the charitable organization. He is proud to refer folks to its online mission statement. In part, it reads, “We are a group of citizens who saw an unacceptable situation and needed to act.”
Johnson’s group wasn’t always a group. Nor did Homes4Heroes have a slick website until Homewood resident Steve Austin came along and brought his techno-skills with him to the fold.
“He called in January,” Johnson said. “We got him the information. He took it over. The site looks like dynamite now. We’re very happy people are paying attention to it. Yes, Steve Austin, if you can believe it. He’s like our $6 million man.”
In the beginning, Johnson worked to raise money by himself. He began donating his services. His object was to help wounded veterans rebuild their lives by assisting them in rebuilding their homes. He completed his first project in September of 2010.
Now, almost two years later, he is overseeing work on project Number 16—a new garage roof at Phil Bell’s home in Orland Park. The project is the largest ever undertaken by Homes4Heroes with a pricetag in excess of $6,500 for materials alone.
Johnson said many of his other projects have been much smaller and much less costly. He offered the example of $150 handicap bars for a disabled veteran to use in the bathroom.
Johnson and Bell met through a mutual acquaintance, Gail Blummer of the Orland Park Veterans Organization. Bell served in the U.S. Army (sergeant first class) from 1993 to 2008. He earned a number of awards and medals, including the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
In March 2006 while in Iraq, his life was turned upside down just like the Humvee he was riding in outside of Fallujah. He was injured when a roadside bomb exploded. Bell suffered a broken back. He was lucky. Two of his comrades died in the blast.
Bell underwent months of rehab before returning home. He can walk—but he can’t run. He still has metal shrapnel lodged in his back. He is on track toward earning two undergrad degrees from DePaul University this fall, one in accounting and the other in management and information systems.
He plans to continue with his education until he has a master’s degree. Then, he hopes to land a desk job as an IT consultant. For now, he will be happy to land a parking space next to his home.
“When I first found out about this garage—it’s been leaking since I bought the house,” Bell said. “I haven’t been able to use it as a garage. It’s been a storage space for whatever I didn’t want in the house. You throw it in there. Some of it got ruined over the years.
“It excites me now that after five years of living here—once they’re done—I’ll actually be able to park a car in the garage. I’ll be able to get my tool bench set up. I really appreciate it. This is something that would have been put off for at least another 3-4 years until I graduated and got a job to where I had an extra $10,000 to go ahead and re-do it myself.”
Bell worked with Johnson’s volunteer Homes4Heroes crew as much as his body would allow him to do so during the initial phases of the project. He picked up scraps of old garage roofing, discarded them and passed up some lumber to the team on the roof.
Bell Rings Loudly in Fundraising Arena
What he can’t do in terms of physical labor, he makes up for with the gift of his time. He donates of himself as a spokesman for Homes4Heroes. His are tales not often shared.
“When I first got home, I visited many doctors and psychiatrists,” Bell said. “I think there are still issues I have with the traumatic brain injury with memory problems, even times when I wake up in the night with night terrors. They’ve given me techniques to where I can deal with it.
“I’ve been able to work with my family so if I wake up in the middle of the night they can help me out. It’s not like a scary scene for the family any more because they’ve worked with us, told us what to do and it’s just a part of life now.”
Bell talks with the teens Johnson recruits as Homes4Heroes volunteers. He makes a big first impression.
“I’ve had parents call me up and say, ‘Oh, my gosh, Bill, I had no idea,’ ” Johnson said. “Their kids come home with these stories. A lot of them are all about me, me, me until they meet a person like Phil Bell. They’re all about their iPhones and texting and what not.
“But when they come out and meet our veterans, meet someone like Phil Bell, it opens their eyes up to a whole new world. It’s education from the school of hard knocks. They go back and tell their parents and they’re fighting back tears. They’re learning about the blood and sweat that goes into protecting our freedom.”
Johnson is moved by the stories, too.
“We’re not looking to change the world here or change the government,” he said. “We’ll let others handle that. We’re just looking to make a difference with our veterans, to let them know we didn’t forget them.”
Ways to Help: If you would like to assist Homes4Heroes, visit the organization's website to learn more.
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