If you’re in need of help in New Lenox, no matter what the problem, there’s one guy who can probably find a solution.
A childhood of hardship—diabetes, blindness and a friend’s death at a young age—shaped the man Cheney became. It made him realize he’s not perfect, and he knows nobody is. Everyone needs help, and through a life of service he’s become the connection in New Lenox for people seeking help and those able to provide it.
“I’ve always had the care for others in my heart,” he said. “My dad and mom were both loving, caring people, and they demonstrated to me how important it was to not focus on yourself.”
Take, for example, when 45 college students from Minnesota were traveling through Joliet on a nine-city service tour for their spring break this year. They were going to help out Joliet resident Virgil Kemp, who founded the Helper Of Mother Earth group that picks up litter. The students needed a place to spend the night. But where was he going to pack in 45 college-aged kids?
“I didn’t know what we were going to do,” Kemp said. “I called Gary and he worked miracles for us.”
With a couple of phone calls, Cheney found shelter, food and showers for the students. The volunteered its space, local businesses and churches donated breakfast and administrators let them use the Aquatic Center showers.
Of course, Cheney deflects the praise and instead thanks the kind-hearted people who made it possible. But he’s the connector, the leader who brings everyone together. And that’s what he’s done in New Lenox by founding the annual ShareFest event, which helps volunteers connect with people in need. The event features service projects, food drives, a health fair and lots more.
“Only in New Lenox would that happen,” he said. “This is truly the greatest community in the world.”
Making Good out of Bad
On Christmas Eve, when he was 8 years old and living in Wilmington, Cheney found out he had diabetes. He struggled with it throughout his childhood, and in his early 20s he lost his vision as a result. After countless surgeries, he regained vision in his right eye but remains permanently blind in his left eye.
“It was devastating to my parents. I had some rough times,” he said. “I usually don’t share a whole lot about myself, but I only mention this because I think what happened out of it was a number of good things.”
The rough times included his best friend dying in a car wreck when they were 16. Cheney remembers he and his friend sticking up for kids getting bullied on the way to school. He remembers the goodness of people who helped him when he couldn’t see.
“Those are the kinds of things you can use,” said Cheney, now 58. “Not everything in your life is good, but what are you going to do with those bad things that happen? I believe it can all be turned around for good. I believe that’s exactly what happened with me. I had to go through those experiences so I could identify with the needs of others.”
He took those experiences and became an active member in the community. When his children were young he got involved with various groups such as the PTA and the library board. He helped run a grassroots campaign in Wilmington to pass a referendum for the schools. He brought the PTA together for fundraising and helped redo the whole playground area at different schools.
“That was almost like a mini Sharefest in itself: bringing people together with their gifts and talents to work toward a good community cause,” he said. “It’s amazing how the stages of your life can lead to the next stage.”
Cheney has always been a man of faith and no fear. He recalls when he was a young boy and he wanted to buy a mini-bike. He promised his father, a carpenter, that he would save his own money to purchase it, and he wouldn’t just ride it around for fun—he’d also take it to church every Sunday.
His family lived on the river, so he’d go fishing and sell his haul to others. He’d do other odd jobs like cutting grass for people. All of this—the faith, the odd jobs, the community building—was something that led to Cheney’s next stage: moving to New Lenox and starting ShareFest.
Love Thy Neighbor
Cheney moved to New Lenox about 15 years ago, and for a while he sat back and got to know the community. Eventually, he became familiar with the local church leaders and their men’s ministries. He thought it would be a good idea to hold a Men’s Unity Breakfast—again, he wanted to bring people together.
This time, he talked about how men should take responsibility. Be a better father, be a better husband, be a better leader. His college degree is in education, and he taught for about five years. He took that experience and became a lecturer for various groups, speaking about accepting responsibility and rejecting passiveness.
The more he became involved in New Lenox, the more he started to connect the dots between the ability of anyone to give what they had to those who needed help.
“I began having these visions, the first ideas for ShareFest,” he said. “I would wake up in the middle of the night sometimes and I would draw on a piece of paper and connect the different needs in our community with the people who could answer the call. I probably thought and prayed over that for a year and it started to come together.”
Finally, in 2007, Cheney announced his intentions at the Unity Breakfast. There was great interest, and by September the first ShareFest was a huge success. People from the community came together to clean up the creek, donate food and complete service projects, such as fixing a door for an elderly woman.
As ShareFest enters its sixth year, its reach has continued to grow. In 2011, Cheney advanced it from a one-day gig and made it “11 Days of Giving,” which allowed the various collections for food, books, clothing and household items to last a full week and a half. That year also featured a new job fair, health fair and a hazardous waste collection.
Through five years, ShareFest volunteers have completed 142 service projects, which provide help to people who request individual projects such as painting a room or fixing a door. Volunteers have collected more than 20,000 food items, 12,000 books, 20,000 pieces of clothing, 16,000 pounds of recycled electronics, 14 tons of other recyclables and more than 1,100 household items. All of the donated items are given back to area organizations who provide it to the needy.
The impact is huge, but the individual stories are what have Cheney tearing up. The father who taught his son about good deeds when they painted a widow’s home. The 90-year-old man who was happy just to have someone to talk to. The recently engaged couple who wrote a letter saying how their lives were transformed by reaching out and helping someone.
“You can literally transform a community by doing this,” Cheney said. “Become a bright light. In this community, God’s hand is upon them. The people here want to give. And they give and give and give.”
Cheney will always credit the people who step up to help those in need, like the mother without a crib for her baby or the father who was laid off and needs to feed the family. But with this annual event, which is just 11 days out of three hundred and sixty-five in the year, what most people don’t see is Cheney working every day to plan for ShareFest or make things happen in the interim, like when the students from Minnesota came here.
The selflessness and mindset to always help others is something Cheney lives by. But for at least 11 days a year in New Lenox, he helps everyone else realize that mindset.
“We’ve all been given a God-given gift,” he said. “The question is how you’re going to use your gift.
“I want to stand in the gaps where we need to lift up the village. When we come together as people who can put their faith into action, we can really meet the needs of the community. We can become that bright light and raise up the community to make it that village on the hill.”