Autistic teen helps homeless vets to expand his social, communication skills

Photo by Sue Suchyta Each year Dillon Marshall-Alley, 16, of Lincoln Park, who is on the autistic spectrum, helps collect blankets, socks, coats and toiletries for the annual luncheon for Detroit and Ann Arbor homeless veterans served through the Veterans Administration, held this year on Nov. 13 at VFW Post 4422 in Taylor.

Photo by Sue Suchyta
Each year Dillon Marshall-Alley, 16, of Lincoln Park, who is on the autistic spectrum, helps collect blankets, socks, coats and toiletries for the annual luncheon for Detroit and Ann Arbor homeless veterans served through the Veterans Administration, held this year on Nov. 13 at VFW Post 4422 in Taylor.

Sunday Times Newspapers

TAYLOR – As the aroma of food fills VFW Post 4422 Hall, where tables are packed with blankets, socks, coats and toiletries for homeless veterans, Dillon Marshall-Alley calmly absorbs the noise and bustle.

Marshall-Alley, 16, of Lincoln Park, who has autistic spectrum disorder, has pursued different charitable projects over the past few years in conjunction with other groups as a way to help overcome the social and communication challenges he faces with ASD.

With the help and encouragement of his mother, Sheri Alley, and the use of social media, Marshall-Alley has collected food for community soup kitchens and pantries, school supplies for children in need, and basic items for homeless veterans, which he distributes in partnership with select local non-profit organizations.

“It makes me feel good to help veterans that need help,” Marshall-Alley said, as he looked around the busy hall, filled with noise and about 60 veteran guests, which at one time he would have found overwhelming.

District 4, a coalition of four Downriver Veterans of Foreign Wars posts, hosts an annual luncheon within a week of Veterans Day, rotating between locations, and inviting once-homeless veterans who are currently served by the Detroit and Ann Arbor Veteran Administrations.

Alley said when she looks around the hall and sees the volunteers and the veterans they help, she is filled with joy, thankfulness and gratitude.

“We will continue doing this as long as we can, as long as they want us to,” she said. “We are going to do whatever we can for our veterans. They deserve so much.”

Alley said projects usually find them when groups call and ask if they want to participate. She said the projects, in turn, help her son overcome the challenges associated with ASD.

“He has overcome so much,” she said. “To see him walking around and interacting with people is a blessing.”

Alley said before her son started working on projects for non-profits, ASD limited the situations he could tolerate.

“January 2016 I was determined that we were going to overcome autism, because autism had a hold of us and our family, and we couldn’t do things,” she said. “I just decided I was going to push Dillon to do these things, and he agreed.”

Alley said her son loves helping others.

“He is a giver, he has a heart of gold and he loves helping,” she said. “We found what he loves to do, and he thrives from it.”

For more information about upcoming projects and collections, go to the Facebook page “Dillon Marshall-Alley’s Group Page.”

Sheri Zaddach, a member of VFW Post 4422 in Taylor and the VFW Auxiliary for District 4, said VFW posts from Romulus, Taylor, Trenton and Wyandotte work together to put on the annual luncheon, which VFW Post 1136 in Wyandotte hosted last year.

Zaddach, who started the annual luncheon four years ago, said looking around the hall at the volunteers and veterans makes her heart well up.

“That is why I started this four years ago, and I will continue to do it as long as I can,” she said.

Volunteer Deni Hunter of Livonia, who served in the Army in Iran, said looking around at the hall filled with veterans filled her heart with warmth and satisfaction.
“It brings a tear to your eye,” she said.

Hunter said she, her two adult children and many family members served in the military.

“After my (military) service I chose to continue to serve, and this is how I choose to serve,” she said, gesturing toward the VFW volunteers. “I have seen a lot of veterans suffering, and we want to ease their suffering.”

Hunter said veterans have always experienced the after-effects of war, whether it was called shell-shock or post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I just don’t think that we are very equipped to handle it, and the country didn’t recognize how in-depth that it goes,” she said. “It is not just the veterans that suffer that, but they have brought it to light more, so that many more people can be helped.”

Zaddach said the once-homeless veterans attending the luncheon have a floor of the Ann Arbor VA hospital where they are housed, and they cannot live independently, whether because of physical or psychological reasons.

“If they can’t walk right, or they can’t ever work again,” Zaddach said. “The Michigan Veterans Foundation has a homeless shelter that is also a learning facility, where they teach them a job and how to live on their own. Within three years, they get them a job and an apartment.”

She said if the veterans encounter difficulties later, they can return to the MVF.
“So they always have a place to go,” Zaddach said. “Some of these guys are in their late 20s, some are in their 60s.”

Hunter said the MVF also helps some “lifers” who she said are too old to acquire new job skills and start anew.

Stephanie Krueger of Taylor, president of VFW Post 4422, said it breaks her heart that so many veterans are homeless.

“It is heartwarming to see all the people who care, who are here talking to them, helping them and providing things for them,” she said. “Sad as it is, at least we are trying to do the right thing.”

Krueger said VFW members are involved with many different volunteer programs and philanthropy.

She said the greatest need for aging veterans, especially those from the Vietnam War era, is hospital and medical care.

“The biggest need is to be able to get treatment and medicines without worrying about how they will pay for them,” Krueger said.

Krueger said the volunteers who help at events like the luncheon do so because they feel it is an important cause.

“They served us,” Krueger said. “We have to serve them. We owe it to then.”

Marshall-Alley’s step-father, Homer Alley of Lincoln Park, who also volunteered at the dinner, said it was wonderful to do something as simple as serving the veterans food for what veterans did for others through their time in the service.

Volunteer Gary “Jumbo” Smith of Belleville, a Navy veteran, said he is glad to be able to help the veterans, to put a smile on their faces and some warmth in their hearts.

Smith is a member of the Shielded Souls, a law enforcement motorcycle club, whose main goal is to help people in the community who are in need, sometimes in cooperation with other organizations. Its members are police officers, first responders, veterans and their family members.

“Our main focus is to help where it is needed,” Smith said. “I am a blessed person. Life has been good to me and I can give back, and it is good to give back, and the reward is to see someone smile.”

Taylor City Councilman Butch Ramik, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam, said it is outstanding when events like this are put on for the veterans.

“We must never forget the veterans, those who served this country,” he said. “This is great, to see the smiles on their face, and you know they got some chow in their stomach and they are good to go for a couple of clicks at least.”

(Sue Suchyta can be reached at