Ligonier Township rafter fulfills mission to help wounded veterans recover
By Rossilynne Skena Culgan
Published: Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013, 11:51 p.m.
What started as a hobby for Margery Hermann has turned into a philanthropy in helping wounded veterans recover, fulfilling a decades-long dream for the 78-year-old from Ligonier Township.
A river rafter, Hermann founded Canyon Heroes, which sends veterans struggling with issues related to deployments on a seven-day rafting expedition along the lower Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.
Since the program began in 2012, she's planned two trips for a total of 12 military veterans. She hopes to fund two raft trips in 2014.
Though Hermann does not attend the veterans' journeys, she knows the area well from personal experience and calls it “God's biggest cathedral.”
“After seven days of being down there, you come away with something powerful most of the time,” she said. “It means different things to different people.”
Hermann said she has wanted to help veterans since she noticed the poor treatment Vietnam War troops received when they returned home.
“The way they were treated was very disgraceful,” she said. “At that time, I just kind of made a promise to myself that someday, I was going to do something to help veterans.”
During the years, she tried to find the right idea, but none seemed viable. Then a light bulb went on.
After rafting the Colorado River several times, Hermann became friends with the river guides,who told her stories of taking blind people and people in wheelchairs on rafting trips.
“They had been trained, and they were well-equipped to handle (it),” she said. “That's when I got the idea in 2011 that maybe this could help veterans, especially those with post-traumatic stress disorder.”
She began pitching the idea and found interest from Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, among others. Hermann credits Murphy's office for his help in founding the nonprofit.
She also lauds Ligonier-based attorney George V. Welty and accountant William B. Knapp, who completed incorporation work and tax work for free. Without them, she said, that process could have set back the fledgling organization more than $30,000.
Welty, a Vietnam War veteran, noted Hermann's dedication to making the trips worthwhile.
“She's been such a hard worker on this and certainly has been very diligent on following through with everything,” Welty said. “There's a lot of detail to it, and she has been taking care of everything.”
Since beginning the nonprofit, Hermann has established a 10-person volunteer board, which includes several veterans.
The trips are a form of “adaptive recreational therapy.” River guides and therapists accompany veterans on the large raft.
Participants are referred to Canyon Heroes by clinicians. Some served in Afghanistan and Iraq, and others served in Vietnam, she said.
“One had been in therapy for 40 years and could never open up about anything until this trip,” Hermann said. “It's a very spiritual place. When you go down there, you get a sense of proportion. There's a lot of solitude down there. It's absolutely mind-bogglingly beautiful. It kind of steadies the mind and gives you time to reflect.”
Rafters start at the level river bank and drop deeper into the canyon each day until they're a mile down, looking at 13 major layers of the earth's crust, turquoise pools and waterfalls.
One veteran who participated said he used to have flashbacks to his war experiences, board member Joe Byers said.
“He said, ‘I'm a new person, and I can deal with my anxieties and fears,' ” Byers said.
Byers of Ligonier Township served two tours in Vietnam and has been involved with Canyon Heroes from its inception.
“(The program has) proven to be enormously successful and we just hope to be able to raise enough money to sustain it,” Byers said. “(Hermann is) very, very dedicated. She has a passion for this therapeutic program. She really is totally committed to it.”
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