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    Clothing needy a world away

    Gordon Brosseau was touched by the need of people in the former Soviet bloc. He found a way to make a difference.

    By CANDACE RONDEAUX, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 10, 2003


    PALM HARBOR -- Gordon Brosseau's bags are packed, but he's not going anywhere.

    One night last week, about a dozen people helped Brosseau with the packing on a grassy lot on Illinois Avenue. A night fog settled in as a pyramid of overstuffed plastic bags grew inside a 40-foot shipping container. From the middle of that pile, the retired Coast Guard petty officer called for more.

    "Come on, give me another one in here," Brosseau said as he rammed a shoulder into one of the 95-pound bags stuffed with clothes.

    "Coming your way," came the reply from down the chain of volunteers he has marshaled to help him with his task.

    All told, Brosseau has helped collect 36,000 pounds of shirts, shoes, jeans, jackets and sundry stitchery to pack into the container. The clothing is part of a six-month drive to send aid to impoverished post-Soviet Ukraine through the sponsorship of several churches in the Tampa Bay area.

    In five weeks, some 20,000 pieces of clothing will arrive in the southern Ukrainian city of Simferopol. Every seam and button will put shirts on the backs of thousands and give hundreds of desperately poor people jobs.

    Brosseau, 39, first put his muscle behind the project after returning from one of his many mission trips with Harborside Christian Church in July 2002. The trip to build a house for a family living in the mostly Muslim town near the Black Sea changed Brosseau's life forever.

    During his 20 years in the military, the retired Coast Guard helicopter mechanic and former Marine stared down all kinds of challenges. He chased down drug runners, plucked stranded people from frigid waters and waded through the worst kind of poverty.

    "In the Philippines I saw whole cities made of cardboard boxes, and it didn't even touch me," he said.

    He also had been on dozens of other church missions before, fixing cars in Honduras and building houses in Mexico. But it was Simferopol's homeless children who finally made him blink.

    Emaciated runaway teens wandered the streets there in torn clothes. Orphaned toddlers wandered the town's alleys alone without shoes. Mothers sold their young daughters into prostitution.

    "I couldn't understand why either someone would kick their kid out or let their kid be out on the streets like that," Brosseau said.

    But in a country where a person's average monthly income is about $35 to $40, the reasons soon became apparent.

    Brosseau wanted to help; and he found a way when he teamed up with Master Provisions, an American Christian mission working in the area.

    The charity has collected nearly 3-million pounds of clothes since starting its numerous missions to former Soviet-bloc countries in 1994. Collecting, packing, sorting and shipping the clothes has created nearly 300 jobs and clothed thousands in the region, say Master Provisions officials. And much of that help has come from people such as Brosseau, whose community service has been a boon for the people a world away.

    "Gordon has done a great job, and he was the key to success down there," said Master Provisions president Roger Babik said in an interview from the mission's offices in Kentucky. "He models out what Christianity is supposed to be. He lives the life that other people just talk about."

    Brosseau shrugs his shoulders when asked what motivated him to devote months of around-the-clock sorting, packing and sifting through the veritable mountain of clothes he's packing into the container.

    "I just got so sick of hearing people say somebody ought to do something about this, somebody ought to do something about that," he said. "I mean, I'm somebody, aren't I? So if I'm somebody, I've got to do something about it, right?"

    Brosseau managed to rally an army of somebodies to help him with his mission.

    About 100 people pitched in during the six-month clothes drive, many of them from Harborside Christian Church.

    Wednesday evening, as he rested on the back of a big truck that arrived from Atlanta with a load of clothes, Doug Bizjack paused for a minute to wipe his brow. The 43-year-old Palm Harbor resident, a fellow church member, worked a full day at his sales job in Tampa but said he didn't think twice about putting in a few hours of personal overtime.

    "I'm tired, but it's for a good cause; and I realize there are people less fortunate than us that really need these clothes," Bizjack said as he reached for another bag of clothes.

    Two hours later, the container dripped with condensation from Brosseau's sweat equity brigade. The packing was done. Asked what he plans to do next, Brosseau just laughed.

    "I'm going to pat this thing on its big iron behind and wave goodbye."

    -- Candace Rondeaux can be reached at (727) 445-4182 or rondeaux@sptimes.com.

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