Courageous climb
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Courageous climb

Yesh Tikvah Army founder and president Rich Walters offers words of encouragement to Steve Gillis, 57, of Squirrel Hill, a stroke survivor, during his break Friday, Dec. 20, in the Cathedral of Learning. Gillis once frequented the Cathedral's stairs before his stroke, and this is his first time returning to the vigorous climb. (Chronicle photos by Lindsay Dill)

Steve Gillis has walked the city of Pittsburgh many times over.

He has laced his shoes and headed out the door of his Squirrel Hill home, making his way up and down many hills.

He has switched walking shoes for dress shoes as he started his workday at the corporate headquarters of PNC at the USX Tower, Downtown.

And when the clouds turned to gray during the winter months, he found himself at the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning, hiking its 36 flights of stairs, taking the elevator back down to the first floor, and then doing the walk five more times in a set.

“I was extremely active,” Gillis, 57, said during a telephone interview.

All that changed this past January. Gillis suffered a stroke on the right side of his body, paralyzing his left side.

He recalled laying in a hospital bed with a five-stint procedure in his future, thinking about the schedule he had to keep at his office, his appointments, his exercise.

“[I was] just trying to fight,” Gillis said of the journey that, 11 months later, has allowed him to walk the five flights of stairs in his home, his wife monitoring his progress at each landing.

When the stroke temporarily halted his work at PNC, and his freedom through walking, he started on a downward spiral.

That’s when he connected with Rich Walters, a 61-year-old stroke survivor, who like him, was dedicated to being active before being impaired by the physical and mental event.

After surviving his April 2013 stroke, Walters started Yesh Tikvah Army, an organization to instill hope in other stroke and head trauma survivors.

For five days after his stroke he couldn’t speak. “Your body feels like it’s melted into the sheets,” Walters said, reflecting on his time in the hospital some eight months ago. He said it’s common amongst stroke victims to give up. “They lose the fight,” Walters said. “It’s a situation of despair, and our job is to get them out of this despair and show them hope and inspiration.”

In 2014, on New Year’s Day, Walters will complete a 14-mile run in Minnesota to jump off his organization — soon to be a formal nonprofit — while raising awareness and funds to encourage survivors to keep on keepin’ on. The money will provide services and needs for the people who the Yesh Tikvah Army works with.

Yesh Tikvah is Hebrew for, “there is hope.”

“I’m only doing this crazy thing to inspire other stroke survivors, and show that they aren’t hopeless,” Walters said of his ambition.

He says that sometimes a sense of hope is “the ability to maintain hope,” and that is the basis of Yesh Tikvah, a Jewish prayer that calls out to God to help those in distress.

The name became a national phenomenon in 2012 when Benny Friedman, a Jewish music performer, created a pop-style song bearing the Yesh Tikvah title; its Yiddish lyrics offering hope:

Brother dear | Dry your tears | Take my hand, never fear | Let’s advance, side by side | And let’s cast our fright aside | Don’t forget all the love | That we have from Above | And you’ll see with the dawn | All the pain will be gone

The hopeful message is what inspired Gillis to reach out to the Yesh Tikvah Army, and take on his challenge of walking up the Cathedral of Learning stairs once again on Dec. 20.

“He was depressed and full of anxiety,” Walters said of his friend with whom he constantly works now to motivate and rehabilitate. “He and I are tight buddies,” Walter said of Gillis, adding his belief in what Gillis can do when he tackles the Cathedral of Learning stairs.

Believing in Gillis is not uncommon. For 19 years, he won acclaim from his colleagues and clients, earning him top-selling accolades for his dedication to his career with PNC.

At home, his son, Jacob Gillis, 21, can’t imagine not knowing his brave parent.

“It would be unbelievable if I didn’t know my dad,” said Jacob, who is studying psychology and Jewish studies at Pitt. “He works harder than anyone I know. Many stroke survivors give up mentally and physically and they don’t recover; that won’t be my dad’s story. He will beat this. It won’t be easy, but if it was, it wouldn’t be so inspiring.”

And while he has temporarily hung up his corporate dress shoes, he is trading in his suit for a chance to tutor kids in elementary and middle school math.

To keep the brain “stimulated,” Gillis said he has taken out ads to lure young people to his mathematical brilliance, only months after being able to read again and gain focus.

The motivation was just a piece of the push he used last Friday, Dec. 20, when he took on the 764 steps in the Cathedral of Learning, his only fear being the landings between the flights of stairs.

Asking if he felt ready and how the people in his life feel about the need to, as he says, “beat insurmountable odds” as he takes on the rigorous activity, Gillis’ strong will shone through.

“I don’t listen to any negativity,” he said, adding, “I cannot afford to fail.”

(Bee Schindler can be reached at beeschindler@gmail.com.)

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