It's the single biggest toy, clothing distribution effort few people even know about
By ED FINKELSTEIN
“This is divine intervention.”
Colonel Ronnie Robinson, deputy chief, St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, was expressing his feelings as the efforts of two dedicated rank-and-file Teamsters unfolded on a brisk Saturday morning Dec. 3 when dozens of volunteers loaded over 100,000 new toys and games, assorted Christmas items and clothing of all types into police cars, vans, flatbed trucks and church busses to be distributed by police, fire fighters and church groups on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to families whose children otherwise would never have Christmas.
“We just want smiles on kid’s faces at Christmas,” said Teamsters Local 600’s Roy Gillespie, who along with his friend and co-organizer, Teamsters 600 member Mike Koeller (a minister in the Leap of Faith Church in Maryland Heights), have been coordinating this particular incredible Christmas effort for the past four years. And all with the blessing of Teamsters Joint Council 13 whose other locals provide part of the volunteer manpower to make this happen.
You had to be there to see it, to believe that something like this is possible. Oh, yes, many groups gather money and toys for underprivileged and needy children for Christmas. But nothing on this scale.
It’s an effort that few people know of because it’s done without fanfare or publicity. The Labor Tribune is the first news outlet invited to document its efforts because of the union involvement.
24 HOURS TO GET IT DONE
The effort began on Friday, Dec. 2 when 11 tractor trailers with Teamster drivers and vehicles donated by the 100-percent union Holland Trucking Co. (Gillespie is one of their drivers) pulls in from different locations across America, backs into the Eagle Warehouse and Distributing docks in Olivette (also a 100-percent union operation where Koeller, a retired Holland driver, now works) to begin unloading tens of thousands of boxes, all new toys from such iconic names as Disney, Hasbro, Mattel, Toys “R” Us and others worth more than $760,000.
Last year it was less than a single trailer. The loads vary over the years but this year was a record. Eagle donates all the storage space and moving equipment.
With dozens of Teamsters and other volunteers on hand, the process begins.
- Unpacking all the toys and obliterating the UPC codes so that the new toys cannot be returned to stores for cash. Then they are repacked.
- From a master list prepared by Gillespie, pallets begin to be stacked for specific groups who will get the toys and clothing for distribution.
- Pallets are shrink-wrapped and marked for their destination groups.
Midway, the volunteers come together. Gillespie thanks them for their time. Koeller says a prayer and gives thanks for the volunteers, for the donor companies and for those who will receive the gifts. An impromptu dinner is served before getting back to work, all the food donated by Imos Pizza and sandwiches and salads by Roper’s BBQ.
ORGANIZED CHAOS BEGINS
Early Saturday morning Dec. 3 police cars and vans from dozens of local communities, church vehicles, fire trucks and flatbeds show up to get their designated pallets of gifts.
Gillespie has a board that clears all organizations seeking help. City and county police and fire fighters, who know families desperately in need of help, do much of the distribution. Dozens of churches and civic organizations also chip in to help with distributions that will begin Christmas Eve and continue throughout Christmas Day.
Saturday is organized chaos. Under the watchful eyes of Gillespie and Koeller, people are scurrying around, Teamsters fork lift drivers are everywhere, people are pulling boxes off pallets and stuffing them into cars and vans, there are shouts, laughter, sighs — and even some tears — everywhere.
But it all comes together. By 1 p.m., 24 hours after the chaos began, it’s almost over.
Organizations like the Urban League, Better Family Life, Moms on a Mission, St. Louis city and county police and fire departments from almost every county municipality are loaded with toys and clothes. Some 40 different organizations in all will take them back and begin their own sorting to ensure the families in need all have something to put under thousands of Christmas trees in a few weeks.
SPEAKING TO THE NEED
As an example, Moms on a Mission, Dupo, Ill., has already identified 50 families, some 150 to 200 kids, who are in need this year, said Dawn Putnam. “It’s unbelievable…we’re going to be able to help so many children.”
And that’s the tenor of conversations everywhere as small groups working to fill their vehicles, marvel at the good this effort is bringing to so many families needing help this year.
In some instances, the reach will go beyond St. Louis city and county. Mike McMillan, president/CEO of the Urban League of St. Louis, said they would use their outreach centers not only in the city and county, but also in East St. Louis and St. Clair County in Illinois to help distribute tens of thousands of the gifts. A full trailer was loaded for them to meet their needs.
“This is God’s work being done here,” McMillan said. “This is going to make an incredible number of families so happy because they thought it was going to be a dreadful Christmas for their kids.”
“This is a needed effort,” said Lawrence Wooten, St. Louis County police commissioner and bishop in the Church of God in Christ. “People are hurting, some many lives are at stake. Parents are crying because they don’t have anything to give their kids. This effort is all about loving and caring. It’s a miracle unfolding right before our eyes.”
GOING MUCH LONGER
Actually, while this particular effort is four years old, for Gillespie and Koeller it’s been a mission of mercy for over 25 years. Working under the banner of a group they called Street Sweepers (sweeping the streets for destitute people), they collected food and clothing for the poor year around.
Their efforts’ name changed last year when both men lost their sons. Today they work under the banner of the Chris How Group, aptly named in memory of their sons, Christopher Koeller and Howard Gillespie.
‘MASTER OF DISASTER’
Gillespie is no stranger to this kind of effort.
Known as the “Master of Disaster,” Gillespie is the Human Rights Commissioner for the Teamsters International Union and Joint Council 13. He is “loaned” by Joint Council 13 to the American Red Cross and others like the U.S. Army as a Teamster logistics expert to local efforts responding to crises to help with the serious logistical needs that are essential in a disaster.
“Trucking – that’s logistics, moving stuff, warehousing, picking things up and moving them into another direction,” Gillespie pointed out in an article in the St. Louis American detailing his crisis response efforts. “It’s very essential in any disaster to get supplies to people, and who better else than an organization — the Teamsters — that works with people moving things in an orderly manner.”
His duties in disaster zones involve directing people, as well as things, in an orderly manner. All skills he demonstrated in this unique St. Louis Christmas effort.
“Roy is a leadership volunteer who connects partners that the American Red Cross works with during times of disaster so we avoid duplication; he connects us with the community to meet their needs,” said the Red Cross’ chief emergency services and regional operations officer for the St. Louis Area Chapter of the American Red Cross in the St. Louis American article.
Its years of crises response efforts that makes Gillespie the master organizer he is. And as a result of his working across America, he is in touch with major corporations who have helped in crises in their local communities. Those contacts resulted in 11 trailer loads of toys, clothing and gifts coming to St. Louis this season.
Whether it’s helping relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina, flooding in Louisiana, tornado-devastated Joplin, Mo, or the Chris How Christmas effort here in St. Louis, Gillespie and Koeller are the ones to count on.
At Christmas, many thousands of families and their children will be the beneficiary of their talents but will never know who they are. And both men are ok with that!
Devine intervention indeed.