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Jay Erwin, left, and his friend Tom Van Gilder, at right, have known each other for more than 30 years and prove that true friendship helps weather the storms of life.
Photo submitted.

Originally published: 2014-06-18 08:10:52
Last modified: 2014-06-18 09:50:19

Community Support For Jay Erwin Continues

by Sherrie Norris

Earlier this year, for about three months, more than 4,000 friends, family members and associates of Jay Erwin rallied behind the Deep Gap man in an online contest in hopes of helping him win one of four available handicapped accessible vans. Despite being a week late in entering the competition, Erwin pushed forward quickly and finished in second place in part one of the two-part contest.
Erwin, who was paralyzed last August when hit by a tree that he was cutting from his yard, was among the top 10 percent of vote getters considered by a panel of judges in the final rounds; unfortunately, he was not chosen as one of the four winners. 

It was a hard-hit for those who had faithfully registered their daily votes -- and disappointing to the Erwins, too -- but everyone, especially Jay, stayed positive.

"We all knew there were a lot of deserving individuals in the running for the vans," said Tom Van Gilder, a close friend of Erwin. "Yes, we were disappointed, but we were not willing to give up."

Within hours of the news hitting social media, Van Gilder's idea began to take shape, and thousands of dollars began pouring into a more personalized fundraising effort for Erwin.

As of Sunday, June 15, $22,100 had been raised in a combined effort through the Go Fund Me website established by Van Gilder, as well as through an existing fund at North Carolina State Employees Credit Union, Van Gilder said.

"Jay and I have been buddies for more than 30 years," said Van Gilder. "We met in high school, during which time my father passed away. Jay was always there for me and has always been a very kind and compassionate person. I didn't want to stand by and see the momentum die that had been created for him through the online contest."

Van Gilder said he was "heartbroken," he said, when he had initially heard the news of Jay's tree accident last August. "I prayed that he would be OK -- and I was crushed when Lisa told me that Jay would never walk again. I knew he had such a passion for running, and that he was training for a marathon," he said.

According to the doctors, Van Gilder said, Jay's training and his great physical shape were key factors in his survival.

Van Gilder visited Erwin at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, and heard his nurses say they had never before seen anyone like Jay.

"Not only did he maintain a positive attitude throughout grueling rehab," Van Gilder said, "he also went around visiting with other patients, praying with them and offering them encouragement."

Jay spent 100 days at the Shepherd Center and returned to Boone and his family before Christmas.

"Since he has returned to Boone, he has started a Facebook Faith page (with over 700 members), a new Run, Roll, Walk club, and a Spinal Cord Injury support group - all to encourage people to keep the faith, and to always strive to never give up and stay strong," Van Gilder said. "Jay also works at Blue Ridge Energies and is back to working full time, which is an amazing feat in itself."

Van Gilder, with a lot of support from Erwin's fan base, decided, he said, to "help Jay and his wife, Lisa, through this next phase of their lives and get the website going."

Van Gilder described the Erwins as "the most humble people you will ever meet."

"Jay said that he knew there were a lot of deserving people out there, and that he would try again next year," Van Gilder said. "That's just Jay  -- always Mr. Positive, but I don't want to wait a whole year for another chance at him trying to win a van.  Lisa struggles every day to get Jay in and out of their Subaru on a slide board. He is a six -foot- four-inch man and weighs more than 200 pounds. It's a lot of work for her to get him around."

Van Gilder called Lisa "an amazing woman, " and one who has been an incredible source of strength for her husband through this entire ordeal," he said. "She has hardly left his side since the tragic accident occurred."

"I reminded them that they had a strong community behind them and they just needed to let us keep this thing going -- to let us be good to them," he said.

The community at large was "awesome" during the initial effort, Van Gilder said, adding, "It was really cool to see how it all came together and how it's still working."

Erwin needs a van that has a lot of headroom and one equipped with hand controls so that he can drive himself to and from work and other places, Van Glider said. "It's critical for Jay to get some independence back in his life," he added.

Van Gilder estimates that a new van like Erwin needs will cost approximately $58,000. "I don't see that as a problem with everyone pitching in to help," he said. "Plus, there is still a mountain of medical bills that they have hanging over their heads that we can't forget, either."

Van Gilder encourages our readers to visit the fundraising site at is, which also includes more details of Jay's story and an inspirational video.

He confirms that the online site is reputable, with good standing from the Better Business Bureau. "But, if for some reason people are skeptical, or don't have Internet access, I plead with them to make a donation to the Jay and Lisa Erwin Medical Fund at the State Employees' Credit Union.

"We've had an awesome start," he said, "but we have a ways to go.

In addition to the aforementioned opportunities to give, Van Gilder said other community fundraising events are being planned for the summer.
"I hope you will come out for these events," he said. "Some will be hosted by local restaurants and another will be a Saturday morning bowling tournament."

"We will be asking local businesses to collect donations at their locations, as well as to donate items for silent auctions and raffle items for these events," he said. "It could also be as simple as placing 'spare change to make a change' jars at work and at home and take the coins to the credit union for the Jay and Lisa Erwin Medical fund."

Other individuals, including Wendy McDonald Estes, are also being proactive in raising friends and funds for the Erwins.

Representing her family-based organization (Operation Mama Gaye), in memory of her late mother, Estes has begun a letter writing campaign to Ellen DeGeneres, asking for help to buy the van, and encourages everyone to get on board with her. "We can all do something," Estes said. "It all counts."

As evidenced through the online competition, Van Gilder said, telling coworkers about Erwin, as well as family and friends throughout the country and beyond, can be very helpful.

He also hopes to enlist the help of local automobile dealers, he said. 

"We also ask for continued prayers for Jay and Lisa," he said. "They have so much to deal with due to this tragic event. We cannot forget them in their time of need."

If anyone would like to discuss the situation or share ideas on how to help, Van Gilder welcomes emails at ( , or calls at (828)264-0895.

In a letter he has sent out to community leaders, business owners and citizens, Van Gilder refers to the Erwins' story as one of tragedy, faith, love and compassion -- and one in which everyone can take part for a happy ending.