Get started on your Homeland Security Degree at American Military University.
Serving your country is one of the most honorable paths a person can take, potentially sacrificing everything to protect others’ freedoms. When that service has reached its endpoint, however, the transition from military to civilian can be quite challenging.
Assimilating back into everyday life is even tougher when dealing with a disability, a situation many veterans face after returning home. As have many before him, Tim Virgilio recognized this troubling issue and wanted to assist.
What he did next was somewhat unique, combining a childhood hobby with a strong desire to help out. Launched in late 2014, Signatures For Soldiers sells autographed sports cards, memorabilia and other items, donating all of the proceeds to Military Missions in Action.
MMIA is an organization that remodels homes and provides other much-needed repairs to disabled veterans’ residences at no cost. The North Carolina-based nonprofit also helps homeless vets with clothing, personal hygiene products and even furnishings for those fortunate enough to secure safe housing.
Like many kids, Virgilio was involved with sports from a young age and gravitated toward baseball early on. This budding interest included collecting cards and eventually grew into a penchant for autographs, a hobby inspired by his dad.
“My father and I would watch baseball together and talk about the great Yankees teams that he grew up watching,” Virgilio said in a recent interview with Forbes. “He started talking about how he would collect autographs from those players including Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford and on and on.”
Virgilio and his father, an Air Force veteran, would spent countless weekends attending card shows to meet athletes and get their autographs.
“It was literally hours and hours and weekends of fun and non-stop discussion about baseball,” he recalled. “I loved every minute of it, and so did my father.”
A substance abuse and mental health counselor for more than two decades, Virgilio changed gears around the time the Iraq War was getting underway.
“The first nine years of my career focused primarily on substance abuse counseling. In the early 2000s when our country was getting ready to go to war in Iraq is when I decided to switch my focus to helping veterans, especially combat veterans, with their transition back from the war environment to civilian life,” he said. “For the past 14 years, I’ve been a Licensed Clinical Social Worker providing support and services for our country’s military veterans. It is an honor that I take very seriously and am honored to do every day.”
Virgilio’s work afforded him the opportunity to help those who served, but it wasn’t enough. After volunteering with MMIA for several years along with his wife, he tried blending a pair of longtime interests in an effort to raise money for the org.
“In November 2014, I decided to combine my hobby of autograph collecting with my passion for supporting MMIA. The original goal was to raise $500,” Virgilio said. “I didn’t have a name for the effort yet. I didn’t have a Facebook, Twitter or Instagram account. Since that time, everything has changed. I am now very active on social media, and through 2019 SFS has raised over $68,000 for MMIA.”
Signatures for Soldiers has grown organically, something Virgilio calls extremely humbling.
“Because this is my volunteer work, I don’t have a paid staff that helps to promote SFS or help with all of the behind-the-scenes aspects. All of the money that is spent for this is from my own bank account,” he noted. “There hasn’t been a marketing effort or media push to get SFS out in front of people. All of the promotion has been through word of mouth and the sharing of the SFS story.”
The list of athletes who’ve supported the cause continues to grow, a veritable who’s who from across the sports landscape. Not surprisingly, Virgilio’s been particularly engaged with those who make their living on a baseball diamond.
“When SFS first started, the donations came directly from the players. I would contact the player and explain what I was trying to do. Once they agreed to sign some items, typically cards, I would then use the cards from my own collection to send to the player to be signed,” he said. “As SFS has grown, I have and continue to get items donated from collectors from all over the country, as well as from players directly.”
Former Orioles outfielder and five-time All-Star Adam Jones, whose father served in the Navy for 22 years, donated an autographed bat. Astros’ right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. signed his commemorative Memorial Day cleats and cap.
A U.S. Marine Corps reservist during his playing days with Atlanta, baseball lifer Dusty Baker gave a boxful of items to SFS that included books, cards, cleats, hats, jerseys and other autographed memorabilia. Indians manager Terry Francona has also donated signed balls, hats and jerseys.
“And the list goes on, as there have been literally hundreds of athletes who’ve donated their time to help SFS and MMIA,” Virgilio said. “The experience has been absolutely incredible.”
Contributions have come from elsewhere, too, including other collectors.
“I have literally hundreds of collectors who donate signed items for SFS to sell to raise money for MMIA. I also have collectors across the country now representing SFS and talking with players about our efforts and asking for their support,” Virgilio said. “The collecting community has also helped spread the word about SFS on social media, which continues to help grow our support base.”
Even card companies have stepped up.
“I’ve had several companies jump on board and support SFS in some fashion. Topps and Upper Deck have donated certified autograph cards for SFS to sell,” he said. “Panini and Topps have donated boxes of cards for SFS to use. Ultra Pro continues to support SFS by providing supplies to use, which helps me to minimize the costs involved with this project.”
Virgilio’s goals for 2020 include passing the $100,000 mark for money raised, a figure that could be boosted by the organization’s presence at The National Sports Collectors Convention in Atlantic City this summer, where SFS and MMIA have been designated as the event’s Charity Partner. No matter the total at year’s end, the autograph collector turned advocate is grateful.
“I’m just an everyday guy, who gets up in the morning and goes to work to provide for my family. To many, I’m a complete stranger,” Virgilio said. “Yet, there are so many people who believe in this effort and place a large amount of trust in me to do what I say I am doing. This level of trust is overwhelming and humbling and is the main reason I stay very transparent with every aspect of SFS.”
He’s also encouraged by the kinship of those who’ve chosen to get involved.
“The other thing that has been surprising for me is how SFS has gone from being my effort to raise money for MMIA to a community that is supporting veterans. SFS is no longer me but is now we,” Virgilio said. “I’m a firm believer that everyone wants to help but most people don’t know how to help. SFS has become that how. It doesn’t matter if the item raises a donation of $1 or $1,000, every donation counts and helps to add to the growing amount raised.”
Because of Signatures for Soldiers, every autograph can directly help a veteran in need. Now that’s worth signing for.