A Heroes Welcome Founder, Sharon Hyland Keyser
Sharon Hyland Keyser is a Blue Star Wife whose husband is currently serving with the US Army's 173rd Airborne in Afghanistan. For five years, Hyland Keyser worked as a sales executive and sales manager, proving herself a driving force in the construction/facility operations industry in Philadelphia.
While she succeeded professionally, she did not feel successful personally. Her opportunity for personal fulfillment came when attending her hometown's 4th of July parade in 2007.
As Hyland Keyser watched our United States World War II Veterans marching proudly through the parade, she noticed the grave difference in the faces of our Vietnam Veterans that marched behind them. She knew that our United States Vietnam Veterans were not respected when they arrived home from their unpopular war and worried our current troops would face the same reception and, eventually, the same post-war conditions.
One month after the parade, Hyland Keyser walked away from her well paying job and invested her life savings into a program she titled, "A Hero's Welcome." A Hero's Welcome is dedicated to welcoming home from war our United States Service Members in a manner befitting an American hero. By establishing relationships with local businesses, schools, Veteran groups and other supportive organizations, Hyland Keyser has played a large role in changing how troops in the Philadelphia area are honored for their service.
As Founder of A Heroes Welcome , Sharon Hyland Keyser spends her time trying to figure out ways to bring joy to other people; to put a smile on someone else’s face. Determined to find a way to live a meaningful life, Sharon has found her calling. She doesn’t mind sacrificing a little bit here and there either, if it means that somebody else may be uplifted as a result. I think that makes Sharon a hero too.
DR: Tell me about your life and your work.
SHK: It's kind of funny that I got into non-profit.
I am twenty eight years old and I started A Heroes Welcome when I was twenty seven. My background is in construction. I was the curly blonde haired girl at the construction meetings, walking the sites with my hard hat on and my construction boots. It was a great time and I loved it. And, it was fantastic that I got this great job when I got out of school because I was in the sales end so I made a lot of money. But, I really had, for a very long time, this desire to give something back. I think a lot of people go through that. I found myself relating to people going through a mid-life crisis but I was only twenty three at the time.
For a really long time I was looking for a career that would allow me to give back and be able to provide something to the world. I remember plenty of nights over the years trying to go to sleep but not being able to. I would go through everything at the end of the day, assessing what I did right or wrong and wondering what will I do better tomorrow, asking myself -
"What did you contribute today"?
I was very frustrated. I wanted to find my calling somehow but I kind of pushed the thought away because it was hard to walk away from a paycheck.
Fast forward to July 2007...
I was sitting at the Fourth of July parade in my hometown, watching everybody march in the parade. When I saw this group of World War II veterans and Korean War veterans I was so inspired. They were so proud to be wearing their Marine Corps league jackets and their VFW shirts and their hats and it just made me smile and think "These are great Americans".
Behind them however, were a group of Viet Nam vets. They carried the flag and they carried their signs but they walked very differently. They were not smiling or laughing. Their eyes were down and their heads were hung. It was just a different kind of marching. I thought -
"Shame on us for ever letting these men and women come home to this kind of crap that they received".
There is really no other way of putting it.
My degree is in history and when I think of the end of World War II I think about the day that the allied forces were victorious and the sailor kissing the nurse in Times Square. But, when the Viet Nam vets came home they were spit on, they were protested, they had food thrown at them. They were really just so attacked. Many of them were worried about wearing their uniform or even admitting that they served.
We have an unpopular war now and I didn't want the same treatment for the men and women who are fighting now. My thoughts were of my husband who was my fiancé at the time. He was and is in Afghanistan and I was concerned about what his welcome home would look like. I wanted to make sure that he didn't go through this kind of thing so, I thought I'll do banners and flags and I had all these grand ideas. The wheels started working in my head and I started thinking about the men and women who may not have families -
How can we make sure that they get a welcome home that honors them for the heroes that they are?
The idea started but I pushed it out of my head because I couldn't think of how the heck I would be able to make a dollar off of that. Not that I was looking to make a profit but, I wondered how I would be able to keep my house or feed myself.
I started asking people if they would join me in welcoming home the troops and they said that they would love to.
I was actually at a Tony Robbins convention and he posed the question "What are you scared to do"? My answer was "I'm scared to quit my job". Then he said "Who misses out besides you if you fail to take the step? Wow, our troops, our military families -- I made a list of about ten groups and then I realized that it was no longer okay to be selfish because it was really about the people who make this life possible. So I quit my job, walked away from a six figure salary and invested my entire life savings into A Heroes Welcome and we have been welcoming troops home ever since.
DR: So when you go to sleep at night these days, do you feel like you've contributed something?
A welcome home celebration for Chief Petty Officer Kyra Maillard upon returning from Afghanistan on April 10th, 2008.
SHK: I do!
It's still a little hard to sleep but that's because now I have so many ideas in my head like whose coming home tomorrow and how can we make this welcome home even better. It's a great way to fall asleep. I love that this is what keeps me up now instead of what did you even do today?
DR: What are you proudest of right now?
SHK: The fact that there are so many people that hear about what I am doing and say they want to do it, makes me proud.
It's hard to help everyone start up a local chapter, even though that's my goal. In the meantime I tell people that it starts by thanking someone in uniform. If people really appreciate what they have done they should stop 'em in the airport or the local coffee shop. Tell them "Welcome home. Thank you for your service. You made this world a safer place. Coffee's on me." Or buy them a beer. I want these men and women to walk around like celebrities.
DR: What are you happiest about right now?
SHK: I am happy that people have taken my cue and are welcoming home the troops.
There are companies that have told me that they have donated to other organizations without ever really knowing where the money goes. With A Heroes Welcome they know that they can get behind the troops and make a huge impact. For example, we have a husband and wife coming home tomorrow from Afghanistan. They got married in Afghanistan. This is basically going to be their honey moon. I have a friend who works at a Holiday Inn hotel and that hotel is donating the entire Valentine's Day package to that couple. It means so much to see that people and businesses are really looking out for our troops.
I am very happy to see that people are coming out by the thousands to ask "How can we help"?
DR: Are there days when you question yourself?
I think that questioning yourself is a good reality check. There are definitely days when I've just spent all day answering emails or returning phone calls, where I haven't gotten a chance to talk to anybody that can help with the next welcome home. But I don't dwell on that because I may never know what one of my emails might have meant to the person that I am responding to. I mean I could be responding to Bill Gates who may have emailed me under a pseudonym. You never know.
There are definitely days when I have wondered if I have done the right thing or I wonder if I could do it better. There are plenty of times when I second guess myself but I have never once looked back and thought that I have made the wrong decision.
DR: That was my next question -
Do you regret that you quit your job?
I mean I wish I had my pay check again because it was nice to be able to buy whatever I wanted to, but it also humbles me to that not everything is about what you can buy.
It's pretty awesome for me to hear someone mention A Heroes Welcome and then I say "That's my program", and then they say "That's you:"! Then they tell me how much they love the program and then they ask how they can help.
I have never once looked back with regret. I have had to adjust my lifestyle but I feel that is the least I can do.
DR: What would you say to one of those Viet Nam vets whose eyes were looking down at the ground in the parade that day - feeling not so "welcome"?
SHK: I actually got a chance to meet with that group and I didn't know it was them.
I was invited to come and speak to the Viet Nam Vets of America. When I was telling them the story of how I got started, I was interrupted -- "That was us in the parade". Then they told me that they were glad that they had inspired me.
One of the things that I have found is that for Viet Nam vets, being a part of the A Heroes Welcome makes them feel as though they are giving something that they never had. They feel like it is their own welcome home and they are providing the troops with a sense of value and pride. They can act as a resource for the men and women coming home and provide the kind of guidance that I can't provide. I can't talk to them about what they witnessed or went through but our Viet Nam heroes can.
I don't call them Vets. I call them heroes.
DR: What would you say to people that don't have a loved one fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan, or to someone who is not otherwise intimately connected. What do you say to them about who these guys are?
SHK: They are more likely to run into a military family member than they are a soldier so, the first thing I tell people is to
"Keep their politics to yourself".
I was very polite about it in the beginning but now it's been a year since my husband has been in Afghanistan and I don't care what someone's opinion of the war is. I got this bigger perspective about it after talking to other Blue Star Wives (a Blue Star means that you have someone serving overseas; a Gold Star means that you have lost someone over there) and they shared with me that their biggest issue is when someone asks them where their husband is and they say that he is in Afghanistan and then they say "Oh gosh. I hope he comes home but we shouldn't even be over there." And they go into this whole thing and its like, you know what, we have worries that you can't understand.
Other people get excited when the phone rings. We get worried. If the doorbell rings, our heart is in our throat. You might be excited because you think you're getting a package. We're afraid that we are going to find two uniformed soldiers at the door telling us that our husband has been killed.
We don't sleep during an entire deployment. We miss out on every birthday, every Friday night, every Saturday night, every Christmas - everything. We miss out because they are over there. So, the first thing that I would say is
"Keep your opinions about the war to yourself."
Instead just say that you will keep the troops in your thoughts and prayers. Just hope that they come home safely and please keep them in your prayers. That's all you have to do. You wanna talk about politics, go and find a group.
Just respect their service.
DR: A hundred years from now what do you want to be remembered for?
SJK: I hope that I will have inspired Americans to be better Americans.
Our Next Welcome Home!
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