How a St. Louis Water Drive for Flint Almost Turned into a Flood

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Water, water, everywhere! - COURTESY OF PROJECT COMPASSION NFP
  • Courtesy of Project Compassion NFP
  • Water, water, everywhere!
Last weekend, when three small St. Louis non-profits held a drive to bring fresh water to Flint, Michigan, the community stepped up.

There was only one problem. They stepped up beyond anyone's wildest projections.

Says Roy Gillespie, a truck driver who was later brought in to assist, "They wanted to collect 1,000 cases of water. The problem is, they didn't collect 1,000 cases. They collected 10,000 cases." That was much more than could fit in the U-Haul they'd planned to use for transport — and more, too, than they could even store overnight. 

The drive was the brainchild of Rachel Jackson, the founding executive director of Project Compassion Belleville. Her organization had teamed up with two other nonprofits, the Korey Johnson Foundation and Beyond Limit Productions. It didn't take long on the morning of the drive to realize what a problem they had on their hands.

"We started at 10 a.m., and by noon we realized we had a water problem," she says, laughing. "Water began to pile up outside the truck and all around us." The magnitude of the problem became increasingly clear as day became night and then morning — after securing temporary places to stash the bounty, including a local funeral home, Jackson and her fellow organizers labored until 5 a.m. to get all the water out of the elements and safely stored.

The UHaul? Not nearly big enough.... - COURTESY OF PROJECT COMPASSION NFP
  • Courtesy of Project Compassion NFP
  • The UHaul? Not nearly big enough....
And that didn't even begin to address the bigger problem. How could they possibly get that much water to Flint?

The answer, is turns out, was a simple one: Bring in the Teamsters!

Gillespie, a St. Louis-based driver for the regional shipping company Holland, is known as the "Master of Disaster" for his efforts to get supplies delivered to the places that need them.  When people connected him with Jackson, he knew this was a problem he could solve.

"I contacted the company and asked if we could ship it, and they said 'that's fine,'" he says. "'We'll do it for free.'" Holland agreed to lend a 53-foot, 102-inch wide trailer — enough, Gillespie is confident, to fit 41,000 pounds of water.

And that's not all. This Saturday, 20 Teamsters plan to be on hand to supervise the packing of the truck. (As Gillespie explains, it's not as simple as just loading pallets into a truck; water is heavy, and these days, plastic bottles are extremely lightweight. Pack them incorrectly, and there could be damage to both the truck and its precious cargo.)

The nonprofits are seeking volunteers to come help with the loading. If you're interested in coming out, everyone will be meeting up at 8:30 a.m. this Saturday at Dellwood Recreation Center (10226 W. Florissant, Dellwood). They expect the work to last about four hours, but it won't be all drudgery; local companies have donated hotdogs, buns and condiments for a barbecue.

Jackson sounds almost shocked by how big the entire thing has gotten. "We are all small African-American organizations that came together," she says, proudly. "This just shows what happens when people unite."

And so if you're looking for a worthy cause to lend your time to, you can show up Saturday, Just don't even think about bringing another 40,000 pounds of water.

"We won't turn down water, but we're not asking for more water," Gillespie says. That part, they've already got covered.

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at sarah.fenske@riverfronttimes.com


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