Gaston & Catawba

Money raised will buy furnace for aging Catawba County veteran

Bill Shillito’s birthday is Jan. 5. The Newton resident will be 65. Instead of gifts, he’d like cash. No need to buy a card and a stamp.

Just go to, find Shillito’s picture and the link Help a Veteran for My Birthday, and then donate whatever you can by Jan. 6.

Shillito’s birthday money will go toward the cost of a new heating unit for an aging Catawba County Army veteran who’s got just enough cash each month to pay his bills and buy groceries, but not enough to cover the cost of a new furnace.

The family of the veteran asked that I not use his name or the name of anyone in the family to preserve the dignity of the veteran and his wife.

This story starts with the veteran’s daughter. “He’d be working today if he could,” she said about her father, who’s in his 80s. The daughter became aware of her parents’ financial situation after taking over her parents’ monthly task of budgeting and bill paying. “When all their bills are paid,” she explained, “they have $248 remaining for gas and groceries and doctor co-pays.”

The daughter said her father served stateside during the Korean War. He then attended a couple of years of business school and went to work for a textile company in a dye house. After nearly 50 years, the company went bankrupt, meaning he lost the majority of his pension. “He walked away with $1,200 retirement,” the daughter said.

The veteran was diagnosed with bladder cancer and underwent six surgeries. “Any savings he and my mother had went toward his illness,” said the daughter, who added that her father’s been in remission 10 years, but has recently been exhibiting a little dementia. “They live on Social Security.”

After discovering her parents were going without heat, she checked every avenue for possible assistance. “Their Social Security is $100 too much for any sort of local or federal assistance,” she said.

The daughter turned to her boyfriend, who went on his own search for help, but, like her , was turned away at every point. Then the boyfriend, a Rotary Club of Catawba Valley member, thought about Bill Shillito, a Rotarian, retired Army major who flew helicopters during the Vietnam War, and a 2014 appointee to the N.C. Veterans Affairs Commission.

“When I heard this story, I knew we had to do something,” said Shillito. “(The veteran) and his family have done everything right.” Shillito commenced round three of trying to find help for the veteran, including contacting U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry’s office. Shillito said a woman in McHenry’s office “put me in touch with a variety of veterans’ organizations, including Jim Starkey’s.”

Starkey, a Hickory resident who served 23 1/2 years in the Air Force and who works to help veterans through his association with Foothills Homeless Veterans Stand Down, Veterans Helping Veterans and Disabled American Veterans, visited the veteran and his wife.

Satisfied that a need existed, Starkey “checked every organization that helps vets and nonvets,” he said. But, you guessed it: No luck. Starkey said the best he was offered was putting the veteran on a mile-long waiting list.

With the ball back in Shillito’s court, he turned to a friend he’d made years ago in graduate school who founded the Massachusetts-based DreamFund, which, is a way to raise money for a good cause.

In the meantime, Starkey told everyone he knew about the veteran’s situation, and folks started giving him donations. As of mid-December, he’d raised $1,390. Also by that time, Shillito’s DreamFund account was almost at $1,500. The cost of one failed attempt to repair the old heating unit and for a new model is $4,200.

Here’s some good news: A new heating unit has been installed, and an anonymous source has agreed to cover any shortfall in the fundraising. The $4,200 bill is due soon after Shillito’s birthday.

“He served our country, and that’s what matters to me,” Shillito emphasized.

Shillito and Starkey said donated funds will go into a Veterans Transitional Advocacy Board account. The Lenoir-based VTAB is a nonprofit that works to find housing and help for veterans.

Shillito and Starkey are keeping their fingers crossed that the final amount raised is higher than $4,200. “We’d love to have a surplus,” said Starkey. “Additional funds will go to Veterans Helping Veterans.” Starkey couldn’t emphasize enough the need for funding for veterans’ needs.

“We think this can be a model for helping veterans,” said Shillito: People helping veterans with verified needs one at a time and keeping them in environments where they are the most comfortable. “We want the next generation to know they’ll be helped when they need it.”