Sherry Tillman, from behind the counter of Past*Present*Future, a gift shop in downtown Ardmore that she’s owned for the last decade and a half, reluctantly admits—when pressed—that she really is a sort of culture warrior.
But imagine for a moment the expression “culture warrior,” fraught as it is with ideological tonnage, stripped of all the heavy stuff, standing alone as a thing to be understood literally. Culture warrior, as defined literally: a person who fights for culture. That’s what Tillman is.
She fights the battle on two fronts, home and abroad. The latter engagement was prompted by an email exchange she had several years ago with Kenneth Marx, a physician, customer, and U.S. Army reservist, who had been called overseas to serve in Afghanistan. Tillman, reflecting on Marx’s accounts of the war zone, was struck by the meager material conditions the people of the region survived.
“‘The kids here are barefooted and in rags,’ he told me,” Tillman said. “So I said, ‘What do you need?’“
He told her, and she got it. Tillman, along with friend and co-conspirator Carla Zambelli, gathered as much as they could—jackets, blankets, scarves, gloves, toys—and prodded friends to do the same. Then they sent the haul around the world, to Marx, who distributed it.
“It really took off then,” the mother of three grown children admitted. “We got on the [locally televised] ‘10 Show,’ CNN picked up the story. ... I had things pouring in from all over the place.”
So they did it again. And again. And again. Hundreds of boxes were shipped from Ardmore to the war zone—from a land of plenty, to one of scarcity. Operation Angel Wings was born.
Their effort didn’t just improve life for the people of the region, the collateral damage of a brutal regime they lived under and the war it precipitated—though that would have been plenty for Tillman—but influenced grander events as well. On Marx’s last day in Afghanistan, the elders of the Shinwari—a tribe whose children benefited from Operation Angel Wings—voted to work with the Coalition forces and against the Taliban.
“The role of Operation Angel Wings was a part of the effort,” Marx told a reporter when he returned from duty. “You have to say it was a spectacular success.”
The United States Congress appears to agree. In January of 2010, Rep. Jim Gerlach (R, Pa.) introduced House Resolution 1045, recognizing the organization for its contribution.
While Tillman has helped provide the material ingredients for stability abroad in the hope it might blossom into something greater, she’s tended the garden domestically as well.
In the wake of an eminent domain case that fractured her community five years ago, Tillman founded First Friday Main Line—a monthly block party that centers around local art and music. A former art student, she touts the celebration as a means of strengthening and reinforcing community ties. Perhaps more importantly, she sees it as a vehicle for connecting local artists to buyers.
“As a society, we don’t value art the way we should,” Tillman said, adding that she views First Friday as an antidote to that apathy.
Tillman understands her two organizations as, if not one and the same, addressing different progress points of the same ladder. It’s about creating conditions where people can flourish.
“I think it connects, it dovetails together, definitely,” she said of her two volunteer interests, before pausing.
“And I think I can see myself doing more.”