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Hometown Hero: St. Pete Salvation Army appreciates retiree

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Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 10:52 AM
ST. PETERSBURG -

Tracking down Mark Tillery isn't hard. Monday through Thursday, the retired autoworker can be found volunteering at the Salvation Army St. Petersburg Area Command.

But pinpointing exactly where he is when you get there can be tricky.

He could be in the nonprofit organization's free cafe serving coffee to patrons. Or outside in the Garden of Hope, harvesting vegetables used in the Army's kitchen for its feeding program. Or tucked in a corner, offering solace and prayers to a homeless person.

Still can't find him? Then he's probably mopping up the restrooms.

"He comes in early and he leaves late. Anything that needs to get done, he gets done," says Major Tim Gilliam, the area commander. "And he does it with such a loving spirit and a humble heart. We're just very blessed to have him here."

The Salvation Army has shown its appreciation by naming Tillery, 60, its Volunteer of the Year. And in December, it dedicated the garden in his name, given that he spends so many hours keeping it growing. A few years back, even President George Bush got into the picture, giving him a Presidential Service Award for his volunteer work with wounded soldiers.

A shy, unassuming man, Tillery is gracious about the recognition. But he really doesn't like the limelight. Getting him to talk about himself isn't easy. He gets embarrassed about it.

"I like to serve others, especially those who are hurting," he says. "It makes me feel good. I'm the one who benefits. It gives me a purpose in life."

For 20 years, he worked on the assembly line at an auto factory in his native West Virginia, sometimes putting in 12-hour days, seven days straight. When he got the chance to retire early, he didn't hesitate.

"Boom! I was outta there," he says. "I was glad it was behind me. But it did make me stronger."

Life took a decidedly upbeat turn when he met a nurse named Beverly, who was in the Army Reserve, in his aerobics class. Both were divorced. The two fell in love, married and moved to Florida, where she went to work at the Bay Pines Veterans Affairs Hospital in St. Petersburg.

After a stint in heating and air conditioning work, Tillery changed course and became a full-time volunteer, giving him flexibility to accompany Beverly on her short-term Army assignments. Among his favorite: Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where he helped at the Chaplaincy Service, distributing clothes and personal items and offering counseling to soldiers coming from Iraq and Afghanistan. That work earned him high praise from the base's commanding officers and a presidential commendation.

He didn't slow down after returning home in 2009. He volunteered at St. Petersburg General Hospital, mainly visiting with elderly patients. Then he saw the ad in the newspaper seeking volunteers to take down old beds and install new ones at the Salvation Army's residential shelter.

And that's when Tillery found his true calling.

"I have a special place in my heart for the homeless," he says. "They can be on top one day and hit rock bottom the next, especially in this society, the way things are now. If I can help change a life, that gives me a lot of joy."

Gilliam says the St. Petersburg operation depends on its nearly 1,000 volunteers to assist with its myriad of programs: two churches, the café and urban garden, a homeless shelter, a resource center, food services, a resource center, foster care residences and a youth gym.

It is Tillery's willingness to go the extra mile that earned him the Salvation Army's top award.

"He not only develops relationships with staff and volunteers, but he also has true friendships with our residents and our drop-in clients," Gilliam says. "He knows them by name, he knows their interests and he knows their stories."

Those relationships aren't limited to the Army's center. The Tillerys take them to dinner and visit them in their new residences when they're able to move on. He beams when talking about the success stories, like the homeless pastry chef who found work in Sarasota, or the guy named Dave who found work in Massachusetts.

"I shipped his clothes there and got him to the airport, and after two years, he's still working," Tillery says proudly. "If you treat someone with love and dignity, you never know how that will change a person."

He's made so many friends with people on the streets that there's no such thing as taking a quick walk downtown.

"It takes me a half-hour to walk from one block to another, with so many stopping me for a hug or to tell me a story," he says and smiles. "Whatever I've given them, they give me back double."

There really aren't enough hours in the day for Mark Tillery.

When he's not at the Salvation Army, he's a volunteer with the Florida Extension Service, assisting at events to teach others about conserving energy. He's taking classes to become a master gardener, which will help him keep the Garden of Hope thriving. "There's a lot of pressure now with my name on the dedication sign," he says.

And later this year, he'll make his second mission trip to Guatemala with his Largo church, to feed and work with malnourished Mayan Indian children.

"Retiring early, best thing I ever did," he says. "Because now I'm doing something meaningful in my life. I can't wait to get up every day and get going."


mbearden@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7613


Use keyword: Top Volunteer, to see a WFLA-TV package on Mark Tillery's work at the nonprofit organization.

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