Barbecue With A Purpose
Chicago construction community supports veterans in need through Midwest BBQ for the Brave
When Gayla Smith of Frankfort, Illinois, first came across the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation’s Smart Home Program, she knew she had to get involved. The program builds specially adapted smart homes for severely injured veterans to help them live more independent lives.
The mission to help veterans is close to Gayla’s heart. Both her son and her son-in-law serve in the U.S. Navy, and Gayla has watched firsthand the struggles and challenges of military families.
“My heart went out to these families,” Gayla says. “I realized the struggles of these injured veterans were beyond what we could imagine.”
Eager to donate to the program, Gayla visited the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation website. There, she found information about other ways to contribute, and one idea caught her eye: hosting a barbecue to raise money for the cause.
“I thought that sounded like a great idea and a great excuse to have a party,” says Gayla.
With her husband, Jim, on board, Gayla planned a backyard barbecue, inviting friends to bring a side dish and a $20 donation. Jim and Gayla provided the barbecue. That first event raised $2,000 for the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation’s Smart Home Program and kickstarted the creation of Midwest BBQ for the Brave.
What started as a simple backyard barbecue has blossomed into a highly anticipated annual event that has raised a quarter of a million dollars to help build specially adaptive smart homes for critically injured veterans—and has garnered the support of the Chicago-area construction community.
Building a Barbecue
The Smiths hosted their first backyard barbecue in 2012 and continued the tradition for the next couple of years. As the event grew, Gayla found that the simple backyard barbecue wasn’t as fun as it could be. People were happy to send checks for donations, but they weren’t showing up for the festivities. In an effort to liven up the fundraiser for its fourth year, Gayla decided to add a band.
There was just one problem: “We couldn’t fit a band in our backyard,” Gayla says.
She approached the owners of a Frankfort event venue, CD & ME, to see how much it would cost to rent the facilities. After sending the information about the Smart Home Program and the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, she received a message back.
They were so moved by the cause, they agreed to donate the venue for the barbecue, free of charge.
Gayla began to reach out to the community to see which other generous businesses and people she could ask to help support the cause.
The Chicagoland Carwash Association soon stepped up, sponsoring a raffle to raise additional money.
Gayla also received encouragement, advice and support from Paul Darley, President and CEO of W.S. Darley & Co. A friend connected the two, and Gayla credits him with giving her the confidence to believe that she could make a difference in the lives of these veterans. As Gayla considered turning her fundraiser into a nonprofit, he offered advice on starting the organization and donated $1,000 as seed money to help get Midwest BBQ for the Brave up and running.
Gayla also found support from her own employer and industry. She has served as the office manager for J&R 1st in Asphalt, Inc. in Hickory Hills, Illinois, for nearly a decade. Gayla began sending emails, asking people in the construction industry she knew for help. She found unwavering generosity.
“People in the construction industry are the kindest, most generous supporters of the military I’ve ever met,” says Gayla. “They really are patriots.”
Soon, Gayla realized that she wouldn’t have enough time to plan the barbecue as well as she wanted and raise the amount of money she’d set as a goal while also working full time, five days a week. She approached the owners of J&R 1st in Asphalt about cutting her hours to four days a week. She was willing to take a pay cut.
Instead, they provided her paid time off each Friday to work on the barbecue; it was their way of lending support to the cause.
“They’re so supportive and understand how important this is for me,” Gayla says.
Community of Caring
Today, more than 40 local construction companies have signed on as sponsors for Midwest BBQ for the Brave. With their support, the event has grown from about 35 friends huddled in a backyard to about 2,000 attendees filling the CD & ME venue.
Midwest BBQ for the Brave has become a full operation, with 12 committee members who help plan the event and more than 60 dedicated volunteers who work the day of the event.
The event offerings have also expanded. Famous Dave’s now supplies the barbecue, and the event features two entertainment groups. There’s a raffle, auction and a VIP dinner for sponsors.
Veterans who have benefited from the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation’s Smart Home Program also join the festivities each year, so attendees can meet the people whose lives they’ve impacted.
Although no homes have been built in Chicago yet, the construction community had the chance to support one of their own, when an injured veteran from Illinois received a home in Virginia thanks in part to donations from Midwest BBQ for the Brave.
“When we met him and heard his story, we wanted to make sure his home was built from his own community,” Gayla says. “It was important that we stepped up as his neighbor.”
Gayla and Jim had the opportunity to fly out to Virginia to attend his home dedication, to hug him and meet his parents.
“It was an exciting moment for us to help bless the home we helped build because of the generosity of the construction industry in Chicago,” she says.
Moments like this—providing a new home for the men and women who have sacrificed so much for the country—are the reason Gayla and the rest of the Chicago-area construction industry have committed to this work. It’s the reason why Midwest BBQ for the Brave exists.
It costs between $500,000 and $600,000 to build one specially adapted smart home, and Gayla’s goal is for the Chicago community to raise enough money to build multiple homes.
To accomplish this, the Midwest BBQ for the Brave team is exploring ways to grow, partnering with other businesses to host more barbecue events, with all proceeds going to the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation’s Smart Home Program.
For Gayla, it all connects to community.
“It’s important for people in the community to take care of the people who take care of us,” she says. “It’s up to us as a community to make sure our veterans have the support they need.”