Navy veteran Haley Leaks practices during a recent Guitars for Vets lesson. The program offers free lessons — and ultimately a free guitar — for veterans with a service-connected disability. It is facilitated through the Hancock County Veterans Service Office. (Photo by Kevin Bean)

By SARA ARTHURS

Staff Writer

Haley Leaks, working a lot and raising two children, realized she was taking care of everyone else.

“I wanted to do more for myself.”

So when she learned about Guitars for Vets, a program that offers free guitar lessons and a guitar to veterans with a service-connected disability, she immediately sent a Facebook message saying she was interested.

“In my mind, I was a glorified rock star before I started,” she said.

As she started studying, she learned that playing guitar is not as easy as it looks. So she gives “huge kudos” to guitar players. But she is learning.

“She’s progressed a great deal as far as I’m concerned,” said her instructor, Mike Patrick.

Leaks, 32, served in the Navy from 2005 to 2010. When she first started with Guitars for Vets, she had to learn how to handle the guitar. She was afraid of breaking it. Instructors meet with the students one on one, and one of Patrick’s first pieces of advice to Leaks was, “You’re really going to have to cut those fingernails.”

Deciding to learn guitar was part of the process of “trying to heal myself in general,” including an effort to lose weight, Leaks said. The process then became part of a journey of “self-discovery.”

She encourages others — even if they, too, are busy raising children — to “do it.”

Patrick said volunteering with this program is an opportunity to give back. He is not a veteran, but has many family members and friends who have served.

“These veterans have … they’ve sacrificed,” he said.

Patrick plays in a garage band with Paul Lilley, who is chapter coordinator for the local Guitars for Vets program.

In learning about Guitars for Vets, Lilley discovered the only Ohio chapters were in Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati. So he started looking into forming a chapter here in northwest Ohio.

The Findlay chapter is the first one not affiliated with a VA facility, made possible through the Hancock County Veterans Services Office. The local chapter still has a few slots available for veterans who live outside the county.

Nichole Coleman, executive director of the Veterans Services Office, said it was exciting to see someone who is not himself a veteran approach her office and say he wanted to do something for area veterans.

“That’s very meaningful to us,” she said.

And Coleman said there have been a few students involved who had not previously been connected with her office. Through their participation in Guitars for Vets, they’ve also gotten to learn about other benefits available through the agency. Also, the pathway to recovery looks different for everyone, and Coleman said the agency wants to make sure there are multiple healing opportunities available for area veterans.

She heard from one student that the guitar lessons contribute “something positive and fun” and are bringing out “the creative side” of their personality.

Guitars for Vets student Tom Smith said he’s retired and didn’t want to just “sit and watch TV.” Smith has depression and anxiety, and the program has offered a chance to get out of the house and keep his mind active.

“It’s a big lift,” he said.

Smith, 57, joined the Navy in 1982, and retired out of the military in 2003. He’d had some experience in plays as a student at Findlay High School (he’s a 1980 graduate), but always wanted to do more with music. He said the advantage to being new to guitar is that he had no “bad habits” to unlearn. But there were surprises along the way, including the need to allow calluses to build up on his hands.

Lilley’s background is in behavioral health, having worked for Century Health and the ADAMHS board.

“Music is such a powerful force,” he said.

He explained that his mother, who died at age 91, had had dementia and couldn’t recognize any of her six children. But when they passed out tambourines and harmonicas at the facility where she lived, she became “so full of life.”

Lilley said Guitars for Vets is open to anyone with a service-connected disability. Veterans don’t need to disclose the details of their disability, but should let program leaders know about anything that might affect their studies, such as a hearing loss or the loss of a finger. Guitars for Vets will accommodate anyone in such a situation.

Veterans are given a loaner guitar to use. After their 10 one-hour lessons, they receive a brand-new Yamaha guitar, along with the case, a pick and strings. There is no cost to the veteran.

“That was huge for me,” Leaks said.

The local band Apple Mary has “adopted” Guitars for Vets, and has gifted the program with some guitars.

David Kerr, who plays lead and rhythm guitar, said he loves being able to express himself and has always used music as “a place of refuge.”

“As a young kid, I was kind of different,” as he was born with “a certain physical condition” that meant he stood out from other kids. “Sometimes you need a place to go that will always be there for you. And music was that for me.”

And Kerr said he’s always felt a sort of “debt to the people that basically supply the freedom that I get to use here.”

He is a full-time music teacher by profession, teaching ukulele, bass and guitar, and has seen students gain confidence through improving their music skills. Kerr said teaching his Guitars for Vets student has been rewarding but, really, “The credit goes to the person that I’m teaching.”

Larry Wainscott, Apple Mary’s vocalist, learned about Guitars for Vets through Kerr. The band as a whole started talking about the program and got “100 percent behind it.”

“I just think it’s tremendous therapy,” said Wainscott, who also plays guitar.

His advice for beginning students? “I won’t tell them it’s easy. … You really got to work at it.” But, he said, it’s “worthwhile in the long run.”

Lilley is looking for instructors who are patient and empathetic. And he’s also looking for more donated guitars. Guitars can be donated locally, while financial donations need to be routed through the national Guitars for Vets organization.

Anyone wanting to get involved can reach Lilley at 419-819-2354 or email oh.findlay@guitarsforvets.org, or can reach out through Facebook.

Patrick said there are really lots of ways you can volunteer or give back to your community. But, as Lilley put it: “This one rocks.”

Arthurs: 419-427-8494

saraarthurs@thecourier.com

Twitter: @swarthurs

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