While our nation was reeling in the days after the shocking attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Navy reservist Will Beiersdorf was pulled out of his civilian life in Arlington Heights for a deployment in Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. detention facility in Cuba.
"We were down there when they were bringing in guys from Afghanistan," says Beiersdorf, whose military career focused on security work.
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"When he first left, it was a state of shock," says his wife, Mary Beth Beiersdorf, who struggled to raise their three sons - ages 6, 4 and 2 - and run the household without her husband or his civilian paycheck.
But their neighbors, relatives, friends and fellow members of St. James Parish in Arlington Heights quickly stepped in to help out.
"Everything from baby-sitting services to yard cleanup to money and gift cards left in my mailbox," Mary Beth Beiersdorf remembers.
When her husband came home, the neighbors invited them to a charity golf outing.
"We thought we were going to a party, and then they presented us with a check and said, 'Thanks for giving us a year of your life,'" Will Beiersdorf says, explaining how that kindness moved him.
"People helped us when I was gone, so when I came back, we wanted to do something to help others," says Will Beiersdorf, 45, who works for Cerner, a health care IT company. An avid marathon runner, he raised money through a 2003 Memorial Day race, used that money to help other military families and decided to form a not-for-profit charity called Salute (www.saluteinc.org) with his wife, who now is executive director of Salute.
"It's become our family," Mary Beth Beiersdorf says, adding that sons Will, 15; Christopher, 13; and Matthew, 11, are also involved. "It's become our life."
Salute has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and helped hundreds of families around the nation, including the monumental task of helping to build a handicap-accessible house for a wounded Marine in Oak Lawn.
This week, while Will Beiersdorf's likeness graces posters for the Oct. 10 Bank of America Chicago Marathon, where he will run and raise money for Salute, Mary Beth Beiersdorf is with the wounded military men and women Salute helped send to a Paralympic Military Sports Camp in cooperation with the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. But the charity also is hosting an unusual fundraiser with the help of a local company and its legendary video game.
"What we tried to do is come up with a way to help vets in a more meaningful way," says Gary Colabuono, marketing director of Arlington Heights-based Incredible Technologies, maker of the Golden Tee video golf game. IT founders Elaine Hodgson and Richard Ditton have donated Golden Tee games to military bases in Afghanistan and put a game on an aircraft carrier. In honor of their company's 25th anniversary, they donated $25,000 to Salute but wanted to do something more.
So starting Friday and running through Sunday, Splinter's Sports Pub and Restaurant, 2070 N. Rand Road in Palatine, will host a Golden Tee Players Charity Championship tournament that will draw top players from around the country and raise tens of thousands of dollars for Salute. Will Beiersdorf and other amateurs also will compete. The entry fee is $125, and players will compete for $25,000 in prizes and money. The event also features live music and a fantasy football contest. For details, visit www.goldentee.com/pcc.
"Many of the veterans play the game," Mary Beth Beiersdorf says.
"It is a player-run event," says Steve Churak, 39, a Golden Tee player from Fox River Grove who helped organize this tournament. With almost a million card-carrying Golden Tee players since the game debuted 21 years ago, some top players can make six-figure annual salaries by winning online games and tournaments, Churak says. Through their charity website www.vgforu.org, players already have raised more than $60,000 for Salute.
It all fits in with Salute's goal to "Honor the service, remember the sacrifice," Will Beiersdorf says. Or as his wife says, "Pay it forward. Help each other out."