When he awoke from a weeklong coma triggered by pneumonia, John Bellavance received the bad news: He had acute myeloid leukemia. The diagnosis was especially fraught for him because his father died of cancer.
“I just don’t get how people can afford to get sick and die,” Denny Gates, executive manager of Gates Automotive Group, recalls Bellavance, his cousin, telling him. “His point was, ‘I can afford to be sick, but what the hell do people do when they’re this ill and they don’t have the means and resources?’ ”
Bellavance was a self-made businessman who ran a trucking and excavating company, but he realized others didn’t enjoy that advantage.
“John had money to pay his bills. His goal was, when he got cured of the symptoms of this disease, he was going to sponsor one or two people a year and take care of them while they were fighting cancer,” recalled Craig Gates, Denny’s father and dealer principal at Gates Automotive, in North Windham, Conn.
Craig Gates: Help pay bills
‘In his memory’
“When John passed away, and he could not do what he wanted to do, we started this fund in his memory,” Craig Gates said.
Bellavance died in July 2012. His concerns laid the groundwork for Jolly John’s Keep You Truckin, a foundation spearheaded by Craig Gates that provides money for “working-class, productive members of society.” It began as a fund in December 2012 and switched to a foundation format in October 2016.
“Technicians rely on beating the time clock; advisers rely on selling time; salesmen rely on selling an asset and getting a commission,” said Denny Gates. “You take that industry, and they get ill and they die because they can’t balance” the competing demands of working to pay the bills and fighting their physical illness, unless they have excellent insurance and financial support from family.
“Our goal is to break the mental fight and allow you to concentrate on the physical side,” said Denny Gates.
“You don’t hear about 8-year-old suicides because they don’t know how to pay their mortgage, but you hear about 58-year-old suicides because they don’t know how to pay their mortgage,” he said. “The stresses of life are real when you’re an adult. To relieve that, I think it’s priceless.”
The foundation is not earmarked for a particular industry. To qualify, potential recipients with a life-threatening disease must provide proof of employment and a referral, say from a hospital employee or caseworker.
“They may be too sick to work, but they have to be gainfully employed,” said Denny Gates. “So if they’re a productive member of society or have been, that’s a big part of the qualifying process.”
The foundation has provided funding for a range of blue-collar professionals including tradesmen, office personnel, restaurant workers and professional drivers. The majority of the recipients work in sales, Denny Gates said.
One of the recipients was Bruce John of Storrs, Conn. He worked as an automotive account executive for a newspaper for 20 years, selling car advertisements and managing accounts for dealerships. In August 2014, he was diagnosed with cancer.
At the time, he was retired from the newspaper but was working full time as a singer.
“I got tongue cancer, which is a real curse for a singer,” said John, who was living paycheck to paycheck. With mounting mortgage and electricity bills, and his daughter entering college, the diagnosis left John afraid that he would lose his car and his home.
“They came through for me and paid a good chunk of my bills for a couple of months while I was convalescing,” said John. “It was quite a recovery.”
Surgeons removed 20 percent of John’s tongue and replaced it with a skin graft from his leg. Today, John is cancer free.
“I sing better than I ever did. They took out 42 lymph nodes,” said John. “I think it really helped my voice, actually.”
Gates Automotive Group, founded in 1986, sells 11 brands at its five dealerships east of Hartford, Conn. It sells about 3,840 used and 4,560 new vehicles per year. The group also has a collision center and car wash, plus an affiliated company, Jolly John’s Truck & Equipment.
Every year, the foundation holds a memorial birthday bash for Bellavance to raise money for individuals with terminal illnesses. The dealership group’s employees play an active role in organizing, promoting and facilitating the event, Denny Gates said, and a majority of the referrals come from employees.
“It’s talked about on the sales floor to prospective buyers, about what we do for the community. But most importantly, our employees think that it’s another job they have, which we didn’t force that upon them,” said Denny Gates. “They don’t look at the work that they do as work.”
The fundraiser takes place at a textile mill tucked away in a village in northeastern Connecticut called Moosup, population 3,231.
Bellavance bought the mill and turned it into the main building for his construction company, Bellavance Truck & Equipment. In October, the fifth annual one-day event raised $59,500.
“It was where he fixed his trucks and he had his office,” said Denny Gates. “We celebrate him in his element.”