By ED FINKELSTEIN
“Organized chaos” that would bring Christmas joy to tens of thousands of youngsters and families in need across the bi-state metro region is the best description of the annual union charitable effort organized by the ‘master of disaster’ – Teamsters Joint Council 13’s Human Rights Commissioner Roy Gillespie and his long-time partner in the effort, Mike Koeller. Both are Teamsters Local 600 members; Koeller also serves as a minister in the Leap of Faith Church in Maryland Heights.
Braving freezing temperatures Dec. 9, over 100 Teamsters Local 600 and 688, church and civic groups, fire fighters and police officers volunteers descended on the Eagle Warehouse & Distributing in Olivette where they:
• Unpacked and re-organized over a million toys, shoes (700,000 pairs), coats, games and clothing from Disney, Hasbro, Mattel, Toys “R” Us and others into comprehensive packages with some of everything in each box. (The retail value had to exceed several million dollars.)
• Then loaded boxes go into the waiting vans, cars and trucks of some 20 fire departments, 65 police departments, and dozens of religious and social service organizations who will distribute the precious items on Christmas Eve to families they’ve already identified as needing help and assistance.
EVERYTHING IS DONATED
With the donation of trucks from Holland Trucking driven by volunteer Teamster drivers (including Gillespie and Koeller), some 27 truckloads came into the Eagle warehouse (Koeller’s employer) during the past weeks to unload the donations from companies across America who now know of Gillespie’s efforts and donate their overstocks and excess production to him. In the early years, Gillespie had to request donations. Now, it’s on autopilot because the firms know how to put their unneeded inventory to good use.
“This is an awesome effort,” said Pontoon Beach Police Chief Chris Modrusic. “These are people who really care about helping a lot of people who need help.”
The carloads of gifts will be distributed at Christmas parties at homeless centers, women’s shelters and other places that serve the homeless and needy.
“I can’t believe this; I can’t believe it,” one first-time volunteer was overhead saying as she piled dozens of boxes of shoes into a waiting police cruiser.
“It’s a blessing for so many, and I’m so happy to be a small part of it,” her partner said as she loaded boxes of toys.
Helping Gillespie and Koeller with the effort are St. Louis County Police Department Lt. Colonel Troy Doyle, St. Louis Police Department Colonel Ronnie Robinson and Judge Jimmie Edwards, the City of St. Louis’ recently appointed Director of Public Safety.
26th YEAR ‘MISSION OF MERCY’
For Gillespie and Koeller this project has been a mission of mercy for the past 26 years. Working under the banner of a group they initially called Street Sweepers (sweeping the streets for destitute people), they collected food and clothing for the poor year around.
Their efforts’ name changed two years ago when both men lost their sons. Today they work under the banner of the Chris How Group, named in memory of their sons, Christopher Koeller and Howard Gillespie.
Gillespie travels the world for the Teamsters International Union providing aid in times of humanitarian crisis. His most recent effort was in Puerto Rico.
He is “loaned” by Joint Council 13 to the American Red Cross, the U.S. Army and others as a Teamster logistical expert, providing an essential service in times of disaster.
“Trucking – that’s logistics, moving stuff, warehousing, picking things up and moving them into another direction,” Gillespie explained in a recent 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 than an organization — the Teamsters — that works with people moving things in an orderly manner.”
Gillespie’s experience directing people and moving materials in disaster zones in an orderly manner is his own unique St. Louis Christmas effort.
“I can’t begin to say ‘thank you’ to the volunteers who give up time on a Saturday to make this work,” Gillespie said. “It’s the volunteers and the companies who provide us with so much that deserve the praise.”\
4,000 to have a warmer winter
In a second wave of Christmas giving, more than 4,000 tee shirts, hoodies and sweat shirts were distributed to 15 social service agencies Dec. 10, a donation from national screen printer R.K. Stratman of Wentzville.
Stratman is the licensed apparel printer for Harley-Davidson products.
The items were distributed from the Innovative Concept Academy at Blewett High School in St. Louis city where, as judge for the St. Louis Family Court-Juvenile Division, Judge Jimmie Edwards sent at risk youngsters instead of jail. He is now the city’s director of public safety appointed by Mayor Lyda Krewson.
The program is part of the Christmas efforts organized by Teamster Joint Council 13’s Master of Disaster, Roy Gillespie.