After serving in the Marine Corps and both the Army and Air National Guard, Joe Lewis, 47, often worried about who would be there for the kids of his fellow servicemen who didn’t make it home. So he started Angels of America’s Fallen (AOAF), a nonprofit dedicated to supporting children of deceased military service members and first responders by funding their extracurricular activities. “It’s about honoring these heroes’ loss and validating their sacrifice,” Joe says.
AOAF started out small, with Joe’s neighborhood pizza place hosting the first fundraiser in 2012. He began by working with families in the Colorado Springs area, where he lives with his wife, Shelli, 45, and sons Michael, 16, and John, 14. But AOAF quickly began to grow. With the assistance of more local events, increasing numbers of private donors and grants from groups like the Newman’s Own Foundation, AOAF now assists 200 kids in 29 states. Participating children select their desired activity—anything they want, from skiing to ballet to karate. There are just two requirements: The chosen pursuit has to be physically, mentally or spiritually beneficial, and it must include a mentoring figure, such as a coach or teacher, to provide stability and guidance. “We want the kids to have an outlet,” Joe says. “We encourage them to try new things, whatever their passion is.”
Running AOAF is Joe’s full-time job, but he doesn’t receive a salary. “It’s a passion for my wife and me,” he says. Shelli is the program services director and works with families to match children with the right activity. Both sons volunteer at fundraisers and enlist friends to help too. “John ran in a fundraising event with one of the children we support riding on his back!” says Joe. The 145 kids on the waiting list motivate him to expand the organization and continue raising awareness for his cause. Joe writes to all participating children, follows up on how they’re doing and encourages them to continue pursuing their passions. He designed AOAF’s eligibility requirements to be inclusive—kids can register whether a parent died on active duty, during a training accident or through suicide. To Joe, the circumstances aren’t what matters. “A child of a soldier is going to grow up without him or her,” he says. “Had it not been for the parent’s service, he or she would still be here.”
Seeing the difference AOAF makes to the families has been the most rewarding part for Joe. “When an organization like U.S. Taekwondo Center sponsors a kid’s lessons,” as with 7-year-old Ryan Rudzinski [in photo], “it helps our dollars go further to help other children.” He hopes to build an organization that will endure beyond his lifetime and eventually benefit all children of fallen U.S. military members and first responders. Even after a long and varied career, Joe says running AOAF is how he’s found his ultimate purpose. “This is where I fit,” he says. “It’s not just an obligation, it’s a complete honor.”
To learn more or make a donation, visit aoafallen.org.