Lending a hand, hammer

AUSTINTOWN – U.S. Marine veteran James Skok shook his head in awe as he held a page of loose leaf notebook paper bearing a youngster’s best penmanship written in royal blue ink.

“This is what I’m talking about,” Skok said emotionally. “This is what makes it all worthwhile.”

The letter thanked Skok for his service, and described how the writer wanted so badly to stay home from school Thursday to help work on the house being built for Skok’s family by volunteers and Habitat for Humanity.

Behind Skok, volunteers from General Motors and the United Auto Workers hammered away at the four-bedroom ranch house under construction along New Road in Austintown. The home is Habitat for Humanity’s 43rd home in the Mahoning Valley since 1989, and its first in Austintown.

Skok, who served 18 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, was injured in 2003 while serving in Iraq as a staff sergeant with the 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division out of California. Thursday, he and his wife, Laury, were overwhelmed as dozens of volunteers from General Motors, GM Foundation and the UAW, representatives of local veteran groups and Habitat for Humanity descended on the property.

“I did my job as part of the team,” Skok said of his time in the Marines. “I came home depressed. I lost my favorite job.

”I think me and God started getting real close after I lost everything. I lost my career. I came home, and I am glad I did. God has blessed me a lot. When things are down, they are really down, and you have to still have hope.”

Thursday, 10 volunteers from the GM Lordstown complex management team, and 10 members of UAW Locals 1112 and 1714 spent several hours working at the home. The project is being funded by an $80,000 donation from the GM Foundation, which is just part of a larger $1.45 million foundation grant to Habitat for Humanity International.

“Teamwork is teamwork,” said UAW Local 1112 President Glenn Johnson who was on hand for the project.

Robert Morales, president of UAW 1714, echoed the sentiment. “We thought it was a great opportunity to give back not only to the community, but you give back to those people that do so much for us and our country.”

“These guys are a blessing. I can’t thank them enough, so I can pray for them,” Skok said. “It’s not about me. It’s about the future veterans.” He was referring to plans by Habitat for Humanity to build a house for a veteran each year.

Maria Mainville of GM Foundation, also made the trip to Austintown from Michigan for the day’s activities. GM Foundation has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to charitable causes worldwide since its inception in 1976. Funding comes solely from General Motors and focuses generally on communities where GM plants are operated.

“This year what’s new to our relationship is we do have a special emphasis on veterans, so a portion of our donation is going to help with new home builds for veterans and skills-based activities,” Mainville said.

Skok gained media attention when he volunteered to provide volunteer security at an Austintown elementary school shortly after the Sandy Hook, Conn., massacre.

Skok said he doesn’t like to talk about his injury, but said simply, “I wish there was no guns in the world, and I wish there was no gore, but let’s come to reality. It’s out there. There’s a big bad wolf out there, so we need a big bad guard dog,” Skok said.