Fresno Co. veteran becomes inaugural recipient of national award

FRESNO, Calif.

An impressive Superman collection at Al Kroell's Squaw Valley home all started with a nickname: "Man of Steel." Because that's what Kroell is, after 53 surgeries.

"Due to a very bad accident when I was in the military I lost the use of both of my hands," said Kroell.

Kroell doesn't like to talk about the accident. He still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. He found his favorite hobby of woodworking therapeutic, but even that became painfully difficult.

That is, until he discovered a computerized laser engraving machine. It opened up a whole new world of business possibilities for him and his wife, Christy. Christyal Plaques & Engraving was born. Kroell showed us examples of intricate designs, all on different surfaces.

"This is on cloth. This on glass. In ceramic," said Kroell.

But the machine cost thousands of dollars, money the Kroells didn't have, and no banks would loan them.

"Being a disabled veteran, I have no earned income. It's tax exempt. So when you go down and apply for a loan, no one will accept it anyways," Kroell explained.

That's where his SCORE mentor Peter Fong helped. Fong pushed the couple to write a business plan and helped connect them with agencies that could help. Kroell said starting a business was one of the hardest things he's ever done.

"Twenty years in the military they don't teach you how to run a business, how to market yourself, or even how to write a business plan," said Kroell. "If it wasn't for Fresno CDFI, SCORE Small Business Administration, this dream of mine would never have been able to come true at all."

Now custom orders pour in from as far away as London. After only about a year in business, the Kroells were shocked to learn they were the first-ever recipients of the Sargent Shriver "Veterans Serving America" award. The Kroells said they were overwhelmed by the honor. Now they want to give back to families just like theirs, by starting a non-profit that helps service groups "adopt" the families of disabled veterans.

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