Veterans group faith chapel will change lives

Veterans group faith chapel will change lives

Proud members of the volunteer building crew pose inside the chapel in progress.


When Veterans Outdoor Adventures learned there was a need for a chapel at Freedom Farm outside Massillon, they knew their next mission was on. The Tuscarawas County nonprofit was founded five years ago to help area veterans enjoy the great outdoors again, primarily by building easily accessible deer blinds for veterans who can no longer go hunting due to disabilities or age.

Curt Baumann, founder of VOA, said their plan for this year was to build even more deer stands. However, after meeting with Freedom Farm founders Bill and Marcia Shearer, the group refocused their efforts on building a chapel on the grounds.

Freedom Farm was built in 2018 to bring veterans and their families together with emotional support horses. Its sister organization, Whispering Grace Horses, is a faith-based organization that has been providing equine therapy for children for about nine years.​

“We’re naming it Melissa’s Chapel,” Bill Shearer said. “She was my nephew Bob’s wife, and she passed away recently. We thought it would be fitting since this whole place is a gift from above we had never anticipated.”

Building the chapel would be the largest project VOA had undertaken to date. Baumann said completing the project would not have been possible without the many corporate and individual donors who have pitched in. He also credited Eric Dyrlund, a fellow VOA member, with not only spearheading the project, but also making it all come together.

A captain with the Canton City Fire Department and a firefighter instructor at Stark State College, Dyrlund also is a former building contractor. He and fellow firefighter Dan Reed owned Phoenix Construction in the 1990s.

“We broke ground the first week of June,” Dyrlund said. “When we didn’t get as far as we wanted to the first day, we needed to secure volunteers for a second day. I made a couple phone calls, and 15 more Canton firefighters showed up. That’s not quite our whole shift but close to it.”

Ben Lasure, second battalion union vice president for the Canton City Fire Department, said Jason Brown and Capt. Mike Marlatt put in some long hours helping Dyrlund. “When Eric put out a call for volunteers, a tremendous number of people answered,” he said. “People know if Eric is involved it will be well-organized and a worthwhile cause.”

Lasure said the volunteer work built a sense of camaraderie by giving the firefighters the opportunity to socialize outside of the fire service. “We got to learn some new skills and had the gratification of helping out a good cause.”

“Eric dedicated his entire three weeks of vacation this year to hand build all the trusses with the help of his fellow firefighter Jason Brown,” Baumann said. “Without Eric this would not have happened.”

Dyrlund essentially designed the chapel himself, but they needed an architectural firm to draw up the plans. An estimate from one firm was $18,000. Sol Harris Day in Canton agreed to develop the plans at no cost.

The business of giving

The project brought more than 15 local companies together, all of which donated products and services.

“Tommy Sancic, who owns Olde Wood Limited in Magnolia, donated all the timber,” Baumann said. “I mean tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of lumber. Jeff Sterling of Beaver Excavating did all the trench work, Leppo Rents gave us all the equipment we needed, and the floor of the chapel is stamped concrete, donated by Deco-Crete Supply in Orrville.”

Dyrlund pointed out the generosity of area Lowe’s stores, which also support the group’s deer stand projects. “There’s no way we can say enough about Lowe’s in New Philadelphia,” Dyrlund said. “The manager down there, Bill Sandy, has been nothing short of amazing.”

For this project Sandy organized materials and volunteer teams from the New Philadelphia, Massillon, Canton and Mount Vernon stores. “Bill and Lowe’s continually support VOA in whatever projects we undertake,” Dyrlund said.

All the concrete needed for the foot and sidewalk was donated by Huth Concrete, and Reidl Construction donated the labor to pour it all. Other corporate donors included Holmes Lumber, Spring Electric and ProVia, with meals donated by Longhorn Steakhouse and Mission BBQ, both in Canton.

Dan Fishley of Mineral City built a custom door, with several of his family members pitching in. “He has put numerous hours into that door, and it is beautiful,” Baumann said. “About the only thing we’ve had to buy were some special hinges for the door.”

Horses that heal

Bill Shearer’s relationship with horses goes back to his childhood. “I grew up at the race tracks because my dad owned race horses.”

During his career as a teacher, coach and administrator with Canton City Schools, Bill Shearer said horses took a backseat. After retiring, he renewed his equine relationships, starting by working with a thoroughbred named Cat he brought home from Nickajack Farms.

“I told Marcia this horse has changed our lives,” he said. “Do you think possibly if she changed our lives, she could change life for some other people? And that’s how Whispering Grace Horses started and now Freedom Farm.”

Freedom Farm grew out of a desire to provide sanctuary for veterans combating PTSD, divorce, mental health issues, homelessness, and alcoholism and addiction.

“We see relationships developing between humans and horses that nobody had any intention of happening,” Bill Shearer said. “What’s amazing is that we came here with two horses and two families, and now, between Whispering Grace Horses and Freedom Farm, we have 13 horses and about 400 families coming here.”

Everything from the land to the barns and other buildings has been donated to the Shearers for their work, who in turn pour their time, money and hearts into the endeavor. But as Bill Shearer said, “To whom much is given, much is expected.”

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