It’s the most valuable thing we can give
By Suzanne Alexander, Director of the LiveLikeLou Foundation
Gary Mitchell is a family man. He loves Sonja, his wife of twenty-seven years, and he adores his three kids and eight grandkids too. Gary’s long-time day job was construction, but he filled his days off with his hobbies of dirt track racing, hunting, and fixing old cars with friends.
The Mitchell family was devastated when Gary was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) in 2009. The disease has weakened his muscles to nearly full paralysis now, and he is unable to speak. It forced Gary to give up everything, including the hobbies he enjoys, and it requires Sonja to be the sole provider for her family and full-time caregiver for her husband.
Over the years, the Mitchell family’s list of household projects had become overwhelming. Small tasks like light repairs and seasonal chores built up and became impossible to prioritize.
“It was the little things that my husband would normally do,” Sonja said. “Gary was a handyman, and it was stressful to him and me that these things were piling up.
“Our house didn’t really feel like a home. I didn’t have the energy to keep up with everything, and it was depressing me,” Sonja shared. Most caregivers share this sense of overwhelming depression, according to a 2017 study of caregiver mental health conducted by the National Institutes of Health.
As part of the LiveLikeLou Adopt and Serve an ALS Family Program, men of Phi Delta Theta at Ashland University, led by long-time Phi Delt volunteer and Ashland alumnus Tony Magistro, have stepped up to the plate. Since the spring of 2019, Tony has recruited and organized nearly thirty undergraduate brothers to volunteer for the Mitchell family through Adopt and Serve. They have repaired door locks, removed old trees, built a dog cage, and even folded the family’s laundry.
“They weren’t just worried about my list of chores, but the whole family’s,” Sonja said. “The guys even cleaned my daughter’s rabbit cage.”
Two larger projects provided the Mitchell family with wonderful gathering places to be a family and build community.
The first project was building an outdoor firepit, where Gary can now sit in his wheelchair with neighbors and watch his grandchildren play in the yard.
“Tony told us Phi Delt wanted the family to have a place where we could relax and enjoy life, including Gary,” Sonja remembers.
The next big job was planning and constructing a greenhouse adjacent to the Mitchell family’s business, Big Prairie Local Produce Vegetable Stand. Over several weekends Tony worked with the undergraduate volunteers to plan the greenhouse design, buy and transport the materials, and build the new space where Sonja now grows more produce to sell.
“This small business is a place where our neighbors can shop and visit with Gary, and we can make a little income to support ourselves,” Sonja explained. “Now we can be together and enjoy life, just like Tony promised.”
Ohio Mu President Pierson Noonan has been on the volunteer team with Tony multiple times.
“Working with the Mitchell family has been a humbling experience,” Pierson wrote. “They have been kind and thankful. There is nothing like helping an ALS family and seeing our impact over time.”
Jaret Baker is the Ohio Mu community service chairman. Jaret wrote, “Volunteering for the Mitchells has given me a better appreciation for the little things in life. Working on their vegetable stand has been so rewarding because we are helping them with their business.”
The disease of ALS is personal for Tony, who lost a dear friend to it thirty years ago, and he also watched his mother suffer from a neurodegenerative disease.
“The Mitchells are doing everything they can to stay together and get through this disease,” Tony said. “They are good people and have dreams for their life. It feels good to help them.”
Tony works with Sonja to plan the volunteer projects and then sets a schedule for the undergraduates to volunteer. He uses patience and planning in equal measure to get the jobs done.
“Tony has a relentless drive to help the Mitchells,” Jaret writes. “He is always the first one to arrive and the last one to leave. He is inspiring to all of us.”
“Some of these guys don’t know how to work certain tools, or they have never had to measure or plan a building project,” he said. “And some of them can only come for short shifts of work. So, I teach one group of volunteers, and then I re-teach a different group of volunteers when they can come.”
“I know they are bringing what they learn back to their schoolwork,” he added.
When asked why he leads the undergraduates in volunteering for ALS, Tony said, “This is something I can do without writing a check. It’s more meaningful to give time. It’s the most valuable thing we can give.”