The former captain at the Peoria Fire Department and Army veteran said he’s overwhelmed that people wanted to help him out.
After a lifetime of service to others, Gary Shehan is touched and honored that people want to help him.
In fact, he still sometimes thinks it is a dream when he looks at the new roof on his 100-year-old house or realizes all his electrical wiring is now up to code.
The former captain at the Peoria Fire Department and Army veteran said he’s overwhelmed that people wanted to help him out. He can’t believe, even though a sign in the yard is a constant reminder, all the people who have helped.
"You always think about how big the corporations are and that they don’t care about anyone, but that’s just not true," Shehan said Friday.
The work, done by volunteers, many of them Peoria firefighters, is through the Heroes at Home program, a national effort to help military veterans in need of extensive home repairs but who are unable to afford them.
"If that roof went, we have lost our house," Shehan said of his home, 1014 W. Virginia Ave. "There is no way I can spend near $10,000 on the house. We probably would have had to sell it off. That’s why this even is a miracle. I have prayed all the time for help."
His wife, Debbie, put it more bluntly.
"I raised our five children and I rocked all 10 grandbabies in this living room in this house. And now we can stay there because of getting the roof on and all the improvements they have done that we didn’t know we needed until they told us," she said.
Gary Shehan spent three years in Korea as a combat engineer in the 1960s. Once home, he knew he wanted to help others so he got a job at the Fire Department, where he spent the next three decades, retiring in 1994 because of lung problems, caused in part because firefighters for years didn’t wear masks when they entered a building and also in part because of his smoking habit.
His income consisted of only his disability pension, which he says didn’t keep pace with the cost of gas, food and whatnot. Soon, he found himself borrowing more and relying on credit cards. Home repairs were out of the question, but he always found time to help others.
"If someone needed help pouring concrete or taking a roof off, back when I could do it, I would. I have done everything from pulling off shrubbery to helping a firefighter’s wife put flowers in," he said.
But he never asked for help until a friend, who knew he was up against it, came to him and asked if he knew about a program to help people like him.
"Yeah, I knew something about it. So (his friend) said he would look into it and see what they could do. I had no idea how big of a thing it was," he said.
Now, the roof is fixed, the wiring done, new windows are in, parts of the house have been painted, but there’s more work that needs to be done, said Fire Engineer Mike Lierle. Work on the house continues today, and volunteers are welcomed.
"We are hoping to stain the exterior of the house, attempt to replace some doors on his garage, paint the interior. It’s all depending on the weather and the amount of volunteers that come," Lierle said.
"Gary worked for the Fire Department for 29 years, so of course we are biased, but in the course of those 29 years, his mission or anyone’s mission is to help people in need. He did that for 29 years without asking for anything in return."
Andy Kravetz can be reached at (309) 686-3283 or firstname.lastname@example.org.