Below is an article written about Frank Keller, a friend who is totally committed to making a difference. It was written by Lorraine Ash and appeared in the Daily Record. Any time I am ready to give an excuse for not doing something for others I think of Frank and realize it is the least I can do.
Morris man fills a hole by giving to others
When the white Howard’s Mission van parked on Mercer Street in Dover Wednesday, dozens of homeless people, all clutching shopping bags, gathered around.
Volunteers from the seven-year-old mission, which started making a monthly stop at Trinity Lutheran Church in July, jumped from the van and into a well-oiled routine.
Want men’s shirts or brand new cargo shorts? Go to the side door. Hoodies? Sweatshirts? Sneakers? Water? Go to the park benches.
“Anybody need socks? I got socks!” yelled out Rick Hey of Parsippany, who became the mission’s only employee after retiring from the insurance industry. Men gathered around him.
A woman approached a volunteer with a box of sweatshirts.
“Can I take that gray one?” she asked in a soft voice. She smiled.
“You got it,” he said.
David DeFazio, who lives around Dover, held his new blue hoodie at arm’s length, admiring it.
“I need some hoodies and warm clothes,” he said, “because the seasons will be changing. People need sneakers. They got sneakers here today.”
Blankets were popular items, too, despite the heat, since people sleep on top of them in summertime. They help smooth out the hardness of a concrete or forest floor.
Meanwhile, at the back of the van, Frank Keller, a trustee of Howard’s Mission and a friend of the late Howard Gellman, its namesake, gave out other types of clothing as well as underwear, knapsacks, and toiletry kits.
“We get rushed as soon as we park,” said Keller, of Morris Township, a tall, thin man with a ready smile.
That’s why the team fans out—to instantly dilute and organize the crowd.
“It’s what we called controlled chaos, but that’s the way we like it,” Keller said. “It’s messier. It’s crazier. There are some organizations that will set up tables and have the volunteers on one side. So it winds up the haves are on one side and the have-nots are on the other. We don’t want to do that.”
The system was developed over years of making weekly runs to New York City, which is where Howard’s Mission began. The late Gellman, who lived in Gillette, used to deliver the Daily Racing Form in and around New York City. As he made his way around the streets, he saw how people were struggling.
He was moved to personally help them, however he could, till his death in 2006 at age 60. On his deathbed, Gellman asked Keller, his buddy, to take care of his elder sister, Gloria. Keller kept that promise, carrying through on Gloria Gellman’s wish to formalize her late brother’s good works.
In 2008, the legal wheels started turning to create the nonprofit. Gloria Gellman died three years ago, but Keller, president of CARPET, et cetera, based in Cedar Knolls, has kept the mission alive, housing it under the same roof as his business.
“Two days ahead of time, we’ll text out to our volunteers, our street friends, in New York that we’re going to be at such-and-such a stop,” Keller said, explaining how Thursday night runs to the other side of the Hudson River are organized. “They get the word out to the people who really need us.”
The van goes to Penn Station, Grand Central, 40 th and 10th, The Bowery Mission, Tompkins Square Park, South Ferry Terminal in Battery Park, and Times Square Church. Recently, because it wants to reach new people, in addition to its customary expectant beneficiaries, Howard’s Mission has been doing so-called “pop-up runs” to New York.
“On those runs,” Keller explained, “we won’t divulge where we’re going.”
Personal and direct
What distinguishes Howard’s Mission—and is a point of pride among its five trustees—is its personal touch. The nonprofit’s motto is “From our hands to theirs.”
“I like the intimacy of the runs. I like the direct contact,” Keller said. “Something about the process resonates with people. One woman needed hand cream one night. No one had any. On the next run, she got a ton of hand cream. These are the little connections we make.”
Extraordinary effort even goes into the making of the toiletry kits that are distributed. Since Howard’s Mission began, they have been a labor of love for Keller’s mother-in-law, Florence Colarusso, 88, of New Vernon. She makes sure every kit contains a bar of soap, hair products, dental products, and a hand sanitizer.
Then come what Colarusso calls the goodies—bras and panties for women, washcloths, tweezers, nail files, safety pins, band-aids, sunglasses, pads and pencils, a cap, a visor, a wallet, anything she can get.
“My lady friends at The Woman’s Club of Morristown have been so kind,” she said. “They donate what they have, empty their vanity and junk drawers, bring me all the goodies they get at hotels when they go on vacation, shop at Walmart. They are wonderful.
“When I’m making these bags,” she said, “I wonder if the people who receive them get as excited about opening the bags as I do about closing them. I think so.”
The direct delivery to the homeless heartens more than the recipients, according to Keller. Individual donors, who leave clothing in a bin outside the CARPET, et cetera building on East Frederick Place in Cedar Knolls, like it, too. So do those who run drives for Howard’s Mission, including St. Kateri Church in Sparta.
“When people drop off boxes of clothing someplace, they really don’t know where it goes or even if their donation is being handed out to the poor,” Keller said. “But people who donate to us know that what they give goes from their hands to our hands to the hands of the homeless.”
Expanding to Morris
The recent decision to expand and serve sites in the Morris County area was a natural, Keller said. For one thing, many of the people who run Howard’s Mission are from New Jersey. But there’s another factor, too.
“Because we are here, people who give to us like to know that we’re giving to people in our communities,” said Debbie Campesi of Whippany, an accountant and another Howard’s Mission trustee. “They really like to hand me a shirt, knowing that shirt will go to somebody in Morristown or Dover.”
Howard’s Mission reaches 50 to 100 people each week. Ultimately, it will never be a large operation, according to Campesi. Its trustees, each of whom head up one aspect of the operation, all have jobs and families.
Yet, starting this summer, Howard’s Mission opened its own space, adjacent to the carpet business. That works well since CARPET, et cetera employees are encouraged to spend an hour, here and there, sorting clothing, bagging lunches, or making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to supplement the two dozen donated weekly by Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament parish in Roseland.
“We can make 60 to 70 PB&Js in an hour,” Keller said.
The goal, Campesi said, is for Howard’s Mission to be just a little bigger.
“So far the funding is private, but we are starting to look for donations,” she explained. “We have this new space. We’re going to start soliciting for more donations, especially more donations of clothing, so we can grow and give more.
“Now, we’re giving out a significant number of items a week,” she added, “but you’re talking a dozen shirts, a dozen pairs of shoes—not 50. We’re doing the best we can.”
Keller, the energetic 64-year-old who coordinates all the runs, has a very busy life. Married with two grown daughters, he runs CARPET et cetera, pursues a doctorate at Fordham University, and sits on the social justice committee of the Health Care Facilities Management Society of New Jersey.
Yet he always has time for Howard’s Mission.
“We are the sum of our experiences,” Keller said. “I grew up in the lower middle class. My mom was very ill. She suffered from schizophrenia and nobody spoke about it. It was ignored. I saw that, early on. I never went to school. I’ve been on my own since I graduated high school.
“I started the carpet business in 1975 and became relatively successful,” he went on. “Around the mid-nineties, as I got into my 40s, existential issues started to come into play. I decided I wanted to go to school.”
So he attended the College of St. Elizabeth in Convent Station, first earning a certificate in pastoral ministry, then a bachelor’s degree in theology and philosophy, and then a master’s degree in theology. His background, and all that studying, led to lots of soul searching for Keller and to a resolve to help people.
“You come to realize that we are what we give away,” he said. “We’re all born with this hole in the soul and we try to fill it using an outside dynamic — food, drugs, sex, alcohol, material things. It doesn’t work. What works is the in-out dynamic. When you give of yourself, you fill that hole.”
He stays humble, he said, in the face of the gigantic need that he sees all around him. It appears to him that there are now more homeless people in New York City than there have been in several years. Though he may drive into Manhattan with a truck loaded to the hilt with clothing, supplies, toiletry kits, and food, it’s always empty when he comes back and there are always more people in need.
Statistics released by the Coalition for the Homeless bear him out: the number of homeless New Yorkers sleeping in municipal shelters nightly is now 72 percent higher than it was 10 years ago.
In Morris County, there were 273 households found to be homeless this past Jan. 27, according to an official point-in-time count — a drop of 9 percent from 300 in January 2014. But talk of federal funding cutbacks, due to sequestration, could reverse that change virtually overnight, advocates say.
At the Dover stop Wednesday, Howard’s Mission emptied every bag, box, bin, and plastic container it had brought in 20 minutes. At the end, one lone man, who arrived late, tapped Keller on the shoulder.
“Could I bother you for some toiletries?” he asked.
“I’m sorry,” Keller said. “We’re out of everything.”
“Don’t worry about it,” the man said. “That’s OK.”
Hey told the man Howard’s Mission would be back at Trinity Lutheran Sept. 16, the third Wednesday of the month.
“We may need to double our route here,” Hey said. “I’m hearing that people are working on summer gardening jobs now. When the weather gets cooler, this crowd could double in size.”
Keller made a mental note to bring more goods for women next time. Usually, he said, about 15 percent of the people who show up at Howard’s Mission stops are women. In Dover, the number was much higher. He closed up the van and looked at the people, laden with shopping bags, smiling big smiles, ambling away, to wherever.
“You go home tonight. You take a shower and get into your nice clean bed,” he said, his gaze looking heavenward, “and you just say, Thank you.”
August 23, 2015
Lorraine Ash: 973-428-6660; firstname.lastname@example.org
- Want to donate money, clothing, supplies, or time to Howard’s Mission? Contact the organization at www.howardsmission.com or 973-605-8787.