Yellow Ribbon volunteers help vet get back on the road

The Blaine Beyond the Yellow Ribbon group has been looking for ways to help military veterans, current service members and their families since it received official designation from Gov. Mark Dayton in May 2012.

Larry Williams has been able to ride with volunteers through the Blaine Beyond the Yellow Ribbon group since September. Williams was a paramedic in the U.S. Army. Here he is riding with Gaylene Gunberg on a sunny morning Oct. 12. Photo by Eric Hagen

Larry Williams has been able to ride with volunteers through the Blaine Beyond the Yellow Ribbon group since September. Williams was a paramedic in the U.S. Army. Here he is riding with Gaylene Gunberg on a sunny morning Oct. 12. Photo by Eric Hagen

Rebecca Olson is the assistant to Blaine’s city manager, but has also taken on the role of leading a core group of seven to 10 volunteers for Blaine’s Beyond the Yellow group.

They helped the spouse of a deceased veteran hook up a generator because she continually had power outages at home. The volunteer’s family also took her out to dinner because she was a bit lonely after her husband died, Olson said.

The group adopted a family during last year’s holiday season and will again do that so a family in need can have presents.

A little over a month ago, volunteers began biking with Larry Williams, a resident of the River Oaks of Anoka senior living facility.

“To be included in something like that is an incredible opportunity,” said Butch Gates, who has been on almost all the weekly bike rides with Williams over the past two months.

His stepmother and guardian Vivian Williams said Larry, 61, was in a traffic accident September 2008 as he was on the way to a party to celebrate five years of cancer survival. He suffered multiple injuries and was not able to return to work.

Williams had been a paramedic with Allina Health and had 33 years experience of active and reserve duty with the U.S. Army, according to Vivian.

After being on active duty, he attended Minnesota State University-Mankato to become a paramedic. As a member of the Army Reserve, he traveled quite a bit including helping set up Mobile Army Surgical Hospital units in Central America, and served nearly a year in Iraq after he recovered from a year of cancer treatment in the head, neck and prostate, Vivian said.

Williams has made multiple trips to the Veterans Administration hospital and the Courage Center, but he is unable to drive himself.

Bonnie Domiano, site manager for the VA, said Williams wanted to drive again to become more independent, but it is still not possible. So the idea came about to get him a bike he could ride.

The VA issued a bike and the Blaine Beyond the Yellow Ribbon group starting in September organized volunteers to ride with him every week the weather is nice.

Domiano said Williams’ mood has improved tremendously since he first moved to River Oaks of Anoka two years ago, after having lived in Andover. This started before the bike rides began in September, but the biking has helped even more.

“Five days a week I had things to do and now six days a week I have things to do,” Williams said.

Williams has been instrumental in setting up a picnic lunch for veterans at the neighboring John Ward Park, getting a group of veterans to go to last year’s Memorial Day service in Anoka and raising the U.S. flag and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance every morning outside River Oaks, according to Domiano.

He also suggested organizing a building-wide school supplies drive and donating the items to a different school in Anoka County each year.

“He’s such a caring and loving person,” Domiano said.

Gates appreciates that Beyond the Yellow Ribbon groups exist to recognize veterans, service members and their families for the sacrifice of service and that they are not responsible for politicians deciding to go to war and are just doing their job.

When Gates was aboard the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt aircraft carrier from August 1966 to January 1967, thousands of people welcomed the ship of over 4,000 men in international ports such as Cape Town, South Africa, while only 12 people greeted them when they got back to the United States.

“I see it as an effort to turn around the concept that we were the bad guys,” Gates said.

Beyond the Yellow Ribbon is all about networking and outreach. Gates had no direct connection with Beyond the Yellow Ribbon, but heard Williams’ story through another veterans assistance group with whom he volunteers.

The Blaine city name may be out front, but Olson said it and other Beyond the Yellow Ribbon networks are not opposed to help folks when there is no local network to help them.

“We try to focus our efforts within Blaine, but sometimes there aren’t other networks that are set up or have available resources to take care of requests outside of Blaine,” Olson said. “We do our best to network with other Yellow Ribbon organizations if a request comes in that is in another community.”

According to the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon website (www.beyondtheyellowribbon.org), 76 networks have been established and about 10 more are close to being officially proclaimed by the governor.

Anoka is slated to be proclaimed a Yellow Ribbon community in December, according to group leader Daryl “Butch” Hathaway. He has already been sending out multiple emails asking volunteers to help people in the area whether it be the spouse of an East Bethel service member whose refrigerator died, or helping the Maple Grove Yellow Ribbon network move a Maple Grove woman who needed to be out of her home.

Gates has seen Williams’ strength improve every Saturday they have gone out and cold and rainy weather has not kept them from riding even if it is just several blocks.

“Last week you almost went two-and-a-half miles and you went uphill without stopping so last week was phenomenal. You’re making progress,” Gaylene Gunberg reminded Williams before their Oct. 12 ride.

Gunberg is a member of the Blaine Central Lions Club, which assists the Blaine Beyond the Yellow Ribbon group.

“It’s all great for me, I’m happy for sure,” Williams said.

The Blaine Beyond the Yellow Ribbon group is always looking for volunteers. To get involved, contact Rebecca Olson at 763-785-6120 or rolson@ci.blaine.mn.us

Eric Hagen is at eric.hagen@ecm-inc.com

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