Being brought up in a southern Mississippi community where people depend on one another, Michael McGill recalls his parents digging water wells and living off the land until they were able to purchase the family business when he was about 11 years old.
“Growing up in Gulfport, Miss., about 45 minutes from New Or- leans, we were lucky to have that Creole Cajun philosophy and background – the red beans and rice, étouffée, gumbo and all that, that’s where we come from,” said McGill. “Living in a community where we all fed each other, that instilled values in me and I was taught to help others because there’s going to be a moment in my life when I may need assistance.”
In high school, McGill decided to join the Army despite a medical condition that affected his right foot and leg. Four years of petitioning doctors to give him the “all clear” finally paid off in 2003, and he was able to join. His first deployment was to Al Anbar Province, Iraq, where he served as a truck driver. He then did combat search and rescue operations in Africa and served in Korea. At home McGill became a recruiter in New Jersey and since 2016 he has been stationed at Fort Sill where he serves as Platoon Sergeant of the Multiple Rocket Platoon System.
“This is where the Army felt I would be most effective so here is where we are,” said McGill.
Since 2017 he has been an Incident Commander with Florida’s Civilian Search and Rescue. When Hurricane Michael made landfall in the Florida Panhandle in 2018, McGill helped provide more than 250,000 meals to those who were affected by the Category 5’s destruction. McGill and his network of volunteers and supporters purchased fuel, transported and distributed approximately 30 tons of food and supplies from Michigan to the victims and rescue workers in Florida. Hurricane Michael tallied up more than $25 billion in losses and claimed 74 lives.
Coordinating his military experience in logistics and his compassion to help others, McGill continues to manage relief efforts from his Lawton home. It’s not much different moving food and supplies than moving munitions across the battlefield, he said.
By reaching out to like-minded individuals and organizations, McGill and his colleagues have raised funds to help those in need and honor the unknown soldiers at Fort Sill’s Post Cemetery.
The family of a seemingly terminal infant needed financial support while the child was undergoing medical care in Oklahoma City. “The child was not expected to live,” said McGill.
To help ease the financial burden on the child’s family, whom they had never met, McGill and his colleagues banded together to raise “enough money so that that family to stay at the Ronald McDonald House for about a month,” he said. “We were told that within a week, the kid was back to normal.
“I didn’t and still don’t know the kid’s name, nor the family, but the need was there.”
But that was not the first time McGill and his friends have passed the hat.
Humanitarianism spread among the ranks while he was overseas, providing support to orphanages and animal refuges in Iraq, Africa and Korea. Whenever one member of the team would leave, another soldier would step in and help, he said.
“Many times, my team would sneak in and fill the need, and no one would ever know we did it,” he grinned. “It has been like that for years. My friends and I would coordinate together and anonymously help others.”
After returning to Fort Sill, McGill and his partners raised $1,800 to pay off the student lunch debt at Lawton’s Hugh Bish Elementary School, a project proposed by McGill’s son, Michael III. When the story was made public, the secret philanthropic network changed their manner of doing charity work.
“After we were found out, we figured if we were going to keep it up we should be more organized,” said McGill. “We created the School of Athens and started going forward with a more professional image businesslike manner.”
Since beginning the nonprofit organization in 2018, McGill estimates the group has completed several dozen bigger projects, many of which come from McGill’s sons, 11-year-old Michael and 9-year-old Remington.
The School of Athens has purchased 200 backpacks filled with school supplies for Lawton students each year since it began. Last year they purchased and delivered school uniforms for Lincoln Elementary School students and recently provided personal protective equipment to doctors and nurses at Lawton Indian Hospital as well as to three hospitals in southern Mississippi.
McGill and his family have been proud supporters of National Wreaths Across America Day, he said. The annual event held on the second or third Saturday in December was established to honor our veterans, remember our fallen soldiers and “teach younger generations to value their freedoms, and the importance of honoring those who sacrificed so much to protect those freedom,” the organization’s website states.
“We’ve done it every year,” said McGill. “I get in my dress uniform; we take the wreaths to the graves and salute them. In 2018 my son asked why we weren’t laying the wreaths on the unknown soldiers’ graves.”
So, last year, in addition to the list of donors, the School of Athens wrote more than 400 letters to the Masonic Temples and Oklahoma’s VFWs asking for support to help honor the unknown soldiers at Fort Sill Post Cemetery.
“Approximately one-third of the letters were returned,” said McGill. “But the donations poured in and that allowed us to provide wreaths to every unknown soldier’s grave in Fort Sill Post Cemetery.”
Christmas Day 2019, the organization banded together to provide dinner for 50 residents of C. Carter Crane Homeless Shelter as well as Family Promise of Lawton and gave gifts to the girls at Marie Detty Youth and Family Services. They also donated food to Lawton Food Bank and Hungry Hearts.
“It was a busy day for all of us,” he said. “We split up the list and got it all accomplished. It was great!”
More recently, following the May 25, 2020, death of George Floyd, a black security guard and truck driver who died in custody of police officers in Minneapolis, the School of Athens began selling signs to help bring awareness to social injustice.
Each sign costs $15 and all proceeds will be used to fund pop-up clinics. McGill is coordinating with medical, dental and vision staff to help identify and treat members of the community with limited or no access to care.
“We are going to get with the Department of Health and find out which areas have the least amount of insured people,” said McGill. “By using the resources that are free, it costs us nothing, but it provides resource allocation. Things that we’re wanting to do or have, they’re already out there. We just got to get them together.”
McGill will retire from the military in the next few years and plans to move back to his home state of Mississippi. But before he does, he would like to build on to the House of Athens. “My dream would be for us to get in with all the organizational leaders from local charities and let’s work together.”