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Pay it forward - Second chance at life inspires red, white, blue generosity

Monday, July 2, 2012

Larry Bunch, center, unveils the patriotic lemonade stand he built for the Gray family, standing around him. Bunch, who received a heart transplant almost 10 years ago, decided he wanted to find more ways to give to others. Now he's helping Zoe Gray, 13, with the stand so she can sell patriotic punch to raise money for military families. From left: Zoe Gray, Molly Gray, Patrick Gray, Zierra Gray, Larry Bunch, Zander Gray, Zada Gray, Phillip Olson.
Ten years ago a woman named Jennifer Gray gave a priceless gift to Larry Bunch, of Hinton.

She chose to be an organ donor, and when she was killed after a motorcycle accident, Larry received her heart.

That gift is still causing ripples today.

Larry Bunch, center, talks with Zoe Gray, left, and Zada Gray, right, about how the sisters will use the new lemonade stand Bunch built for them to sell red, white and blue patriotic punch to raise money for military soldiers, an idea Zoe dreamed up.
A life-giving gift

About a decade ago, Larry knew his heart was failing, his condition caused by a degenerative heart disease.

It got to the point where, halfway through his commute from Hinton to Le Mars for work, he'd have to stop, rest, turn around and go home.

Larry Bunch, of Hinton, works on final touches on a stool for the lemonade stand he built for 13-year-old Zoe Gray, of Le Mars, to sell patriotic punch to raise money for military families. Bunch, who received a heart transplant almost 10 years ago, decided he wanted to find more ways to give to others.
At a hospital in Minneapolis, a doctor told Larry without a heart transplant, he'd have maybe a week to live.

Then came a call that Larry will not forget.

"It was July 15, 2003; it was our 31st wedding anniversary," he said. "They had a match. A heart. I got a woman's heart."

Larry said he will always be grateful for Jennifer's gift, but he wishes she wouldn't have had to give it.

"I made a vow that, if I made it through it, I'd help people," he said. "I just want to keep paying it forward."

Living to give

As soon as his health returned, Larry "adopted" two World War II veterans, a couple named Martha and Alan Dale, who were 85 and 88.

Martha had been part of the Marines and Alan had been part of the Army.

Larry, an Air Force and Air National Guard veteran of nearly 18 years, knew the couple because Alan and Martha would bring their lawnmower to his automotive shop to be fixed.

After Alan had a stroke, Martha called Larry to help her start the lawnmower.

When Larry asked why she was trying to mow the lawn on her own, she responded that she and her husband didn't have anyone to help.

"So I went home and told my wife, 'I found out what I'm here for,'" Larry said.

For the past 10 years, Larry has forged a friendship with the couple, helping wherever he can.

He also fixes up old lawnmowers and weed eaters and donates them to senior citizens or young families who need them, he said.

Zoe's idea

Earlier this summer, Larry encountered a teenager who shared his eagerness to give to others, to pay it forward.

Zoe Gray, of Le Mars, is a 13 year old who has lived through military deployments of both her dad and step-dad, and she wants to help other military families get through those difficult times.

Her mom, Molly Gray, recently started the nonprofit group SAFE, or Serving Armed Forces Everyday, which aims to support military members and their families in any ways they need.

Zoe said her mom's volunteering challenged her.

"I said, I want to do something, too," she said.

That's where the idea of a lemonade stand sprang up.

Well, not exactly a lemonade stand.

"I wanted to raise money for military families by selling patriotic punch -- it's this punch that's red, white and blue in layers," explained Zoe, who will be going into eighth grade at Le Mars Community School this fall.

She had the recipe. All she needed was a stand to sell it from.

That's when her mom, Molly Gray, saw some of Larry's woodwork on Facebook.

She tracked down Larry and asked him if he would build a commissioned lemonade stand for her daughter.

But when Molly shared Zoe's plan and the mission of SAFE, Larry wouldn't hear of accepting any money for the project.

"I've been wanting to do something like this forever," Larry said. "I said to her, 'I'll start tomorrow.'"

A grand stand

Larry got to work -- aiming to complete the lemonade stand before the Fourth of July, so Zoe could premier her patriotic punch for the holiday.

He cut out the wooden pieces, smoothed them out, painted them with glossy layers of red, white and blue paint, and sanded them to near perfection.

The process takes many hours, especially the painting part, which can take 10-15 days to complete, Larry said.

Anti-rejection medications after his heart transplant have made it difficult for him to be on his feet for more than a few hours.

So when Larry built the lemonade stand, he had to work a couple hours, then take a break, than work a few more hours.

"I worked pretty steady on it because I wanted to get it done for the Fourth of July," he said. "I wake up at 3 or 4 a.m. every day anyway."

Larry's finished product isn't the average lemonade stand.

The shiny red, white and blue stand, complete with a large red umbrella and pub stools, boasts a large image of an eagle in front of an American flag on the front, a vinyl decal Larry picked out especially for this.

"There's a lot of time invested in this," Larry said, putting finishing touches on the stand.

The Home Depot donated the materials, he noted.

"And I want to paint SAFE across the top in white letters," Larry added.

He unveiled the patriotic stand to Zoe and her family this past Friday.

"I think it's amazing," Zoe said. "And it's absolutely inspiring -- his story."

Family lessons

Zoe's dad, Phillip Olson, who recently returned from Afghanistan with the National Guard group based out of Le Mars, said he believes Molly's volunteerism has taught Zoe by example.

"It really shows a maturity for Zoe," he said.

When a soldier deploys, in a way his or her family is also on a deployment, Olson said.

"They go through all the harder stuff at home," he said.

Zoe's step-father, Patrick Gray, is a National Guard veteran who has retired from the military after 15 years.

"I'm very proud of all the family," he said. "I really try to teach Zoe and the rest of the kids to be a leader and not a follower, and she's really taken that to heart."

Punch and a dream

This Wednesday, for the Fourth of July, the patriotic punch stand will be ready for customers, stationed near Veteran's Park in Le Mars, at the end of the July 4 parade route.

Along with tri-colored punch, people can buy SAFE T-shirts and more.

Zoe, her sister Zada, 10, and friends spent hours making pop can koozies out of duck tape and bubble wrap to sell at the stand.

The patriotic punch stand will also appear at events in the future such as the Plymouth County Fair, Molly said.

Zoe already has a goal in mind for the first money she raises, inspired by a song she listened to over and over while her father was gone on a recent military deployment to Afghanistan.

"My favorite song was 'The Climb' by Miley Cyrus during my dad's deployment," Zoe said. "It was hard while he was gone, but we worked through it as a family. That song helped me get through it because pretty much the whole point of the song is even though life gives you hard obstacles such as deployment, you have to keep on climbing to get over them."

That's why Zoe wants to use the money she raises to host a family day at a rock climbing wall in Sioux City.

"I want to pay it forward to military families," Zoe said. "And I want to be a role model to other kids, to say paying it forward, you can do simple things like this."

Larry said it's a "crazy coincidence" that the woman who gave him a heart and the teenager he's helping with the lemonade stand have the same last name, but there is something they do have in common -- generosity.

And Zoe said she's walking away from this experience with more than a dazzling stand to sell patriotic punch.

She said Larry's spirit of paying it forward is "truly amazing."

"And that even inspires me more to do to help other people," Zoe said.

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If more people were as generous as Jennifer Gray, we wouldn't have over 50% of Americans waiting for organ transplants dying each year. Most of these deaths are needless. Americans bury or cremate 20,000 transplantable organs every year. There are now over 114,000 people on the National Transplant Waiting List.

There is a simple way to put a big dent in the organ shortage -- give donated organs first to people who have agreed to donate their own organs when they die.

Giving organs first to organ donors will convince more people to register as organ donors. It will also make the organ allocation system fairer. People who aren't willing to share the gift of life should go to the back of the waiting list as long as there is a shortage of organs.

Anyone who wants to donate their organs to others who have agreed to donate theirs can join LifeSharers. LifeSharers is a non-profit network of organ donors who agree to offer their organs first to other organ donors when they die. Membership is free at www.lifesharers.org or by calling 1-888-ORGAN88. There is no age limit, parents can enroll their minor children, and no one is excluded due to any pre-existing medical condition. LifeSharers has over 15,000 members, including 121 members in Iowa.

Please contact Dave Undis, Executive Director of LifeSharers, if your readers would like to learn more about our innovative approach to increasing the number of organ donors. He can arrange interviews with some of our local members if you're interested. His email address is daveundis@lifesharers.org. His phone number is 615-351-8622.


-- Posted by LIFESHARERS on Tue, Jul 3, 2012, at 10:58 AM

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