Walk-a-Thon to raise proceeds for veterans to have service dogs

Published 10:13 am Thursday, April 11, 2019

NILES — Dogs have a reputation as man’s best friend. For military veterans, canine company can also be a lifeline.

To help give more veterans the chance to connect with service dogs and start a conversation about veteran suicides, the Western Michigan Gold Star Mothers will host a Walk-a-Thon. The event will take place at 1 p.m. Sunday, May 19. The walk will start at the Veteran’s Memorial in Riverfront Park. During the event, donations will be collected to support Working Dogs for Vets. The nonprofit organization helps veterans to train their own dog to be a service animal or connects them with a service dog.

The Gold Star Mothers are a nonprofit organization made up of moms whose children died serving their country while on active duty. For Shelly Tropp, an event organizer and Gold Star Mother, the Walk-a-Thon also seeks to pay homage to her son, Army Specialist Cody Sisk.

Sisk was a Niles High School graduate with a passion for sports, including wrestling, football and soccer. Sisk was 22 years old when he died by suicide in July 2015.

Tropp remembers her son for his dedication to bettering the place he calls home.

“He just overall always wanted to serve his country,” Tropp said. “He was a good kid.”

The 2.2-mile walk seeks to symbolize the roughly 22 active duty service members and veterans who commit suicide daily. While the number of veteran suicides has fallen slightly, down to 20.6 now, according to Veterans Association statistics, it remains an issue that needs awareness, Tropp said.

“It is a difficult thing [to talk about],” Tropp said. “There’s always that stigma because they are trained to be the strong ones to help other people, not for someone to come and help them.”

Tropp said she knows service dogs can make a big difference in the lives of veterans suffering from PTSD. Through her work with the Gold Star Mothers, she is familiar with several families who utilize them to help loved ones. Through Working Dogs for Vets, Tropp said veterans get a variety of help from their service animal.

“If it’s a physical limitation, they are trained to help retrieve things,” Tropp said. “If it is PTSD, [they] can be a soothing or comforting effect.”

Nationally, the Gold Star Mothers’ Walk-a-Thon began about two years ago, inspiring local chapters across the country to host their own event. This year, Tropp said the Western Chapter wanted to bring the Walk-a-Thon to the Niles community. While Tropp noted there is not a fundraising goal for the walk, she hopes to see a turnout of at least 50 people.

In addition to the walk, the Western Michigan Gold Star Mothers have initiated a variety of projects to give back to military veterans. Last year, they raised about $1,500 for the Fisher House, a comfort home supplied to veterans while they have family in the hospital.

Overall, Tropp said the Gold Star Mothers do what they do with their children in mind.

“We, as Gold Star Mother, strive to keep the memories of our sons and daughters alive by working to help veterans,” Tropp said.

Those interested in learning more about the event can call Tropp at (269) 683-4897.