“It gave me purpose” – Woodworking becomes an outlet for some veterans

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AURORA – After hearing about the number of veterans dying by suicide, a northern Illinois man decided to do something about it.

A total of 167 Illinois veterans committed suicide in 2019, according to the Illinois Department of Public Affairs. The average number of Illinois veteran suicides from 2015 to 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 2015 things slowed down. So he started carpentry in his downtown Chicago apartment. Zilioli said he was in a dark place during this time, and then he started hearing about veteran suicide statistics.

“But for some reason, in that mental state, it hit me differently,” he said. “And all I could think of is that there are bound to be people who would like to do that too.”

And he wanted it to happen. His Chicago apartment wasn’t big enough, so he started small.

In 2017, Zilioli brought his turn to a woman who once worked as a prison guard in Iraq. He taught her how to make wooden seam ripper in his garage.

Zilioli created this wooden seam ripper to help a family member who was having trouble using a regular seam ripper. Zilioli calls them couture liberators if they are made by veterans. Yvonne Boose/WNIJ

“In two weeks, she made 20, he said. “And throughout the process of making these things, she learned to use all the tools that she would eventually buy. And he was trying to remove as many barriers to her success as possible through this process.

He said that with her new skills, she was able to start her own business.

He was ready to attract more veterans, but he needed more space. So he worked with a realtor, and she suggested a warehouse on a river in Aurora. He wasn’t convinced it would work but he paid a visit to the City of Light anyway.

“But I saw these three windows over the Fox River. And I imagined a lathe sitting in front of each of these windows,” he recalls. “And I imagined these veterans standing here and having this really amazing positive memory that they could take with them for the rest of their lives.”

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Yvonne Boose/WNIJ

Zilioli said the goal is to teach 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 has never worked with wood before.

He said the view of the Fox River is very calming. Macino heard about Zilioli at a veterinary center in Downers Grove. He said he had surgery on his ankle and leg, which left him feeling lethargic.

“And I was depressed, very depressed,” he explained. “I have PTSD. And I find that gives me a reason to get out of bed and come and do these things. He really had a purpose in my life. It gave me a purpose.

Al Scott is also a Vietnam veteran. He did carpentry in high school. When he discovered this program, he thought it would be a perfect opportunity to strengthen his skills. He said he was coming for the therapeutic effects and not for a source of income.

“It helps me keep my mind from drifting to places I don’t want to be,” he said. “I have PTSD from Vietnam, like most vets in Vietnam, and other vets as well.”

Dennis Soszynski is 75 years old. He learned about the opportunity from another veteran who participates in the program. He started woodworking about 4 or 5 months ago.

“I stand here today with over 30 pens, I made them for my six grandchildren. Our four children plus their spouses. [It’s] A great place. Greg is doing a great job here, helping all of us.

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Wooden pens made by veterans. Yvonne Boose/WNIJ

Zilioli said while it’s in Aurora, veterans everywhere are welcome to participate.

“In this room right now we have, I think, Aurora, Elburn and Naperville. But we are right next to Aurora station,” he said. “If someone lives in town and wants to take the train, we will pick them up at the station, we will get them off.”

Zilioli said some veterans come a few days a week. Some have started home businesses, but others are doing it for fun.

And for him, that’s fine.

“I can help with the publicity, 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, being there when they maybe lose hope,” he explained. “So if I can stop them from getting there, maybe that helps.”

Information about this program is available on the A Call to Shoulders Facebook page.

Yvonne Boose is currently a body member of Report for America, an initiative of Project GroundTruth. 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.

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