AURORA — After hearing about the number of veterans who die by suicide, one northern Illinois man decided to do something about it.
A total of 167 Illinois veterans took their lives in 2019, according to Illinois Department of Public Affairs. The average number of Illinois veteran suicides from 2015 through 2018 is 159.
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Woodworking was just a hobby for Greg Zilioli. He worked as a freelance creative director for 25 years but in May of 2015 things slowed down. So, he started doing woodwork in his downtown Chicago apartment. Zilioli said he was in dark place during this time, and then he started hearing about veteran suicide statistics.
“But for whatever reason, in that mental state, it reached me differently,” he said. “And all I could think was that there’s bound to be people out there that would love to be doing this as well.”
And he wanted to make this happen. His Chicago apartment wasn’t big enough, so he started out small.
In 2017, Zilioli took his lathe to a woman who once worked as a prison guard in Iraq. He taught her how to make wooden seam rippers in her garage.
“In two weeks, she made 20 of them,” he said. “And through the process of making these things, she learned how to use every tool she would eventually be buying. And it was trying to remove as many barriers as possible to her success through this process.”
He said, based on her new skills, she was able to start her own business.
He was ready to pull in more veterans, but he needed a bigger space. So he worked with a real estate agent, and she suggested a warehouse on a river in Aurora. He wasn’t convinced that would work but he made a visit to the City of Lights anyway.
“But I saw these three windows on the Fox River. And I imagined a lathe sitting in front of each of these windows,” he remembered. “And I imagined these veterans standing here and having this really amazing positive memory that they’d be able to carry with them for the rest of their lives.”
Zilioli said the goal is to teach the veterans a skill set that will help them make money if they choose to go that route.
Guy Macino is a 74-year-old Vietnam veteran who’s never done woodwork prior to this.
He said the view of the Fox river is very calming. Macino learned about Zilioli at a Vet center in Downers Grove. He said he had ankle and leg surgery, which made him lethargic.
“And I was down, very depressed,” he explained. “I have PTSD. And I find this gives me a reason to get out of bed and come and do these things. It’s really had a purpose in my life. It’s given me purpose.”
Al Scott is also a Vietnam veteran. He did woodwork in high school. When he found out about this program, he thought it would be a perfect opportunity to reinforce his skills. He said he comes for the therapeutic effects and not for a revenue source.
“It helps me so that my mind doesn’t drift back to places I don’t want to be,” he said. “I have PTSD from Vietnam, like most Vietnam vets, and other vets as well.”
Dennis Soszynski is 75. He learned of the opportunity from another veteran who takes part in the program. He started doing woodwork about 4 or 5 months ago.
“Here I stand today, with over 30 plus pens, I made them for my six grandchildren. Our four children plus their spouses. [It’s] a great place. Greg does a good job here, helping all of us.”
Zilioli said although this is in Aurora, veterans from all over are welcome to take part.
“In this room right now, we’ve got, I think, Aurora, Elburn, and Naperville. But we’re right near the train station in Aurora,” he said. “If somebody lives in the city and wants to take the train out, we’ll go pick them up at the train station, bring them down.”
Zilioli said some veterans come a couple of days a week. Some have started home businesses, but others do this for enjoyment.
And for him, that’s just fine.
“I can help with the advertising, I can help with the marketing, I can help with the product. There’s a lot of things I can do. But what I can’t do is be a veteran and, you know, actually be there in the moment when they’re possibly losing hope,” he explained. “So, if I can prevent them from ever getting there, maybe that helps.”
Information about this program can be found on A Call to Shoulders Facebook page.
Yvonne Boose is a current corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It’s a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.