It's all about the STORY!

Photo credit: Les Bartholf

Too often philanthropy is thought of as ‘that thing rich people do.’ With charity balls and writing big checks to planned giving—please remember us in your will. And certainly, these big gifts and large donors are enormously important to keep needed and wanted services afloat in our community. Philanthropy really is giving that comes from the heart, and it manifests in many forms. It’s about giving of yourself in large and small ways whatever talents or resources you may have and directing it in a way that benefits others, a cause and your community. This past weekend, three brothers—Paul, Mark and Patrick Wilson did just that.

Memorial Day weekend, Van Wilson, I mean: The Wilson Van took the stage by storm at St. Petersburg’s State Theatre, which resulted in raising $30,000 of unrestricted funds for Southeastern Guide Dog’s program Paws for Patriots. What might come as a surprise to many—it did to me—is that the government does not provide guide dogs or any funding for guide dogs to military personnel who are blinded in the line of duty.

So, as it should be, community steps in where government does not. The end result of this benefit was not just a bunch of guys on stage rocking the ‘burg, but the real take-away from this concert is the knowledge that an additional six blinded military personnel or veterans will soon be able to partner up with his or her own guide dog to help them rock ‘n’ roll through life.

Rewinding to the beginning, the whole story started a few years ago as Mark Wilson, news anchor at Fox13, was about to celebrate his 40th birthday. As the story goes, brothers Paul and Patrick Wilson were trying to plan a party for their aging sibling, and they had an idea—to find a band that would let Mark go up on stage and play a few Van Halen tunes with them. You know, just something fun to do.

Says the oldest brother, Paul: Patrick was to check with Mark to see what songs he knows and to report back. According to Paul, Patrick called him back saying, “Uhh… I think I screwed up. He says he knows them all. And so instead of him playing with a band, we could form our own band for the night.”

Or something like that, which then turned into a succession of annual benefit concerts, selling tickets for charity that went from raising just a few thousand dollars to a total of $30,000 for this most recent event. Ambitious, this Van Wilson trio. Oh, and about the name…

Fans couldn’t help but notice a conspicuous last-minute name change for the band–switching up the formerly known Van Wilson to The Wilson Van. The reason, says Patrick Wilson via Twitter to a fan asking a similar question, “Van Wilson was too darn obvious [since we cover a lot of Van Halen songs]. Not even sure who gave it to us. The Wilson Van has a little more… hoomer.”

When I asked Paul Wilson if the brothers even had a van, inquiring into the name change myself, he talked in more esoteric terms than his sibling, “Scribe Daphne, circular thoughts not literal musings. High sweeping arcs.” My high sweeping arch, then, envisions a “Crazy Train” with a little less crazy, swapping out the train for a van, and that’s The Wilson Van. All abooooard!

So, let me introduce you to The Wilson Van, virtually. Pictured at the top from left to right—Lt. Colonel Kathy Champion (Paws for Patriots beneficiary), Paul Wilson, Former Navy medics Eric Kallal (Paws for Patriots beneficiary), Corporal Mike Jernigan (Paws for Patriots beneficiary), Patrick Wilson, Bill Malik, Matt Stocke, Mark Wilson in front left and Tom Overbey front lower right.

These are the band members along with honored guests for the evening—local recipients of guide dogs from the Paws for Patriots program. At one point during the concert Kallal joined band members playing bass guitar for a roaring performance of Bon Jovi’s “Have a Nice Day.”

“That was the highlight of the night for me,” said Mark who played lead guitar throughout the event. “I was really moved when I first talked to Eric, and he told me that he was practicing his guitar.” Kallal said that he uses music to help channel his energy, and Mark reports that Kallal did not hesitate to agree to join the band on stage with a song—the energy for that performance was palpable.

As successful as the night was by anyone’s standards, the work that goes into pulling something like this off is incredible, and the Wilson brothers each have rather demanding day jobs—often night-time too, plus family responsibilities. In short—they have no spare time.

Case in point, Mark happens to be an Emmy Award-winning journalist/anchor with Fox 13 News; Paul is a local advertising mogul; and Patrick is an Emmy, Tony and Golden Globe nominated actor—seen often on film, TV and Broadway. So, how did these guys find time to do this?

According to Mark, much of it happened organically, but taking a little extra time was key. This event was unique in that the brothers took three months to plan, while previous events were pulled together in a matter of weeks.

The selection of the benefit was an obvious choice for Mark as he kept learning more and more about the work of this organization randomly in his personal life. First, he heard about it from a Paws for Patriots recipient, Jernigan, whom Mark and his family knew through church. Then, Mark’s daughter, Logan, came back from a field trip “puppy hugging” at Southeasten Guide Dogs, and he heard more about the organization.

“It was a no-brainer,” said Mark. “We knew we wanted to do something to benefit the military, because we already had the date set for Memorial Day weekend.” Then, the benefit side of the event took off.

According to Mark, Beverly Young, wife of Congressman C.W. Bill Young, was instrumental in helping Mark connect with the local veterans who are program participants. This part was the catalyst, bringing the cause to life to the public—seeing these men and woman on stage with their dogs and hearing their stories kept the meaning of the event in focus throughout the night.

As if the charity part wasn’t enough, with a concert, band members need to practice, preferably together. Moreover, the Wilson brothers wrote and performed four original songs, and Patrick had to remain between New York and New Jersey until the final hour. They only had one in-person rehearsal the Friday before the show. How does that work? Technology.

Enter the age of apps. Yes, apps. Patrick wrote an entire song entitled “Heal You,” using the “Garage Band” app on his iPad, banging on cups in lieu of drums while he was on location in his trailer. He sent his creation to Mark who duplicated it with real instruments to create a demo for the rest of the band to learn the song.

Everything else went similarly. Mark would send lyrics and such using Voice Memo on his iPhone, usually from his car, and the band even practiced via Skype. Anyone familiar with Skype knows about the delay inherent with the program, so the band practiced with their drummer, Patrick, appearing on a computer screen and adjusting to a constant one-second delay.

Said Patrick, “Eric [the Paws for Patriots recipient] playing bass with us was a metaphor for the whole show. It represented the most important thing—the injured military and how you just go on. In a much smaller way, that’s how the whole show was. The band played 16 songs, including four originals, with very little practice. You just have to keep going forward. It’s gonna happen. And everyone there wants to have a good time.”

The Wilson brothers did not do this alone, however. While the music was totally on their shoulders with the help of a few other musicians, they give heartfelt thanks and credit to family, friends and other big hearts in the community who gave generously with time, talent, moral support and donations, including those for a live and silent auction.

Specifically, Michael Moorefield, a representative for Brown Foreman Wine & Spirits, helped gain a Jack Daniels sponsorship for the cause, which donated liquor—a significant cost-savings and additional revenue stream for the event.

Another star donation was a collaborative effort spearheaded by Mark Wilson. This is a gorgeous 2011 Gibson USA-made Les Paul I electric guitar, customized with a graphic by Declan Flynn, clear coat by Professional Auto Body in St. Petersburg, and the truss rod cover was hand designed and donated by Bill Nichols at nicholsonlay.com. To see a photo of this rockin’ work of art, CLICK HERE.

The Wilson family spent the rest of their holiday weekend together, mostly gathered at their parents’ house, John and Mary K. Wilson.

“Actually, the charity helped bring the family together,” said Patrick. “Two uncles of ours are vets, and this charity meant a lot to them. Grandfathers on both sides of our family were military—in fact, most of the men in our family were military until our generation. We all have great admiration and respect for our military. This cause meant a lot to all of us.”

First published on SaintPetersBlog: http://saintpetersblog.com/2012/06/the-wilson-vans-philanthropy-rocks-the-burg/

UPDATE: Podcast of my internet radio interview with Paul Wilson on Write At Five on www.rhinoonair.com, talking about the creative process and the upcoming benefit concert: http://rhinoonair.com/?p=1920

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