Students at Wentzville Middle School collect donations to give to homeless veterans as part of a project arranged by the mayor of Truesdale, Missouri.
They call them the Bridge Family.
How this family of five earned that moniker is not a happy story. They’re called that because they literally live under a bridge near the Salvation Army in St. Louis
The father served in Iraq. While he was there, he had a rough go.
“He explained to me that he saw his best friend get shot right next to him,” Jerry Cannon said. Cannon serves as the mayor of Truesdale, but his day job involves teaching at Wentzville Middle School where he is also the student council sponsor.
The father, Cannon said, really struggled after he saw his buddy get taken out by a sniper.
“He had PTSD really bad, lost his job, his family lost their home,” he said.
So the veteran, his wife, and his three children were forced to move under the bridge.
The Bridge Family is just one of the many homeless veterans Cannon and his students have helped collect clothing and personal items for over the past 18 years.
“These people are trying,” Cannon said. “They’re just having a rough way of getting over all the PTSD that they’ve encountered.”
He said the process changes lives, both for the homeless veterans they help, but also for the students who participate.
On a recent Friday, three of the 31 student council members helping with the project spent part of their school day sorting through boxes and bags of clothing donations, organizing shirt and pants and filling boxes marked for men, women, and children as they prepare to make donations – and experience the opportunity to help those who are significantly less fortunate.
So far, students had collected 1,500 pounds of items. Last year, Cannon’s team donated more than 8,000 pounds.
Cannon said most donations start coming in after Thanksgiving.
“We’ve already gone and picked up two truckloads from people who couldn’t get here,” he said. “We’ll go pick it up. We’ll get it done.”
It’s the attitude that comes from a person who has been working to help homeless veterans and their families for almost two decades.
It was Christmas time 18 years ago when Cannon went with his church to sing at the Salvation Army. And while they were there, a group of homeless men and women came in for a meal.
“I saw a guy who looked like my grandpa and he was in an old ripped up T-shirt, he just had shorts on and it was like 10 degrees outside,” Cannon said. “And so it just hit me really hard that there are so many people out there that have family that are homeless.”
And that thought drove him to find a way to serve, and to use that service as a way to teach.
“I just got a vision that we can do something and we have an opportunity to teach kids to serve and why not get them involved and make this a thing that we can have future generations taking care of people who need help,” he said. “Then it got into the need of homeless veterans, which took it another level up. These people have served our country and they come home, they had PTSD or they have all these other issues and they can’t get back to normal and they deserve our help.”
Helping those homeless veterans is a real eye opener for the students who help collect and sort donations, and then help walk veterans through the items to make sure they come away with everything they need.
“It’s sad seeing those people,” eighth grader and Wentzville Middle School student council vice president Logan Van Scoy said. “They come in with not very much stuff and then we help them.”
Van Scoy said he was surprised at how little some of these homeless veterans have.
“I just go to school and you don’t really think about that stuff until you’re there, and you see all those people walk in with stuff and it’s not a lot of stuff,” he said.
“Most of them have fought for our country. And so it’s just sad to see how they’ve been treated after they’ve made such a sacrifice for all Americans,” eighth grader and student council president Sophia Sexton said. “Not many of us could fit all of our things in a basket, but many of them, that’s all they have.”
Sexton, Van Scoy, and fellow eighth grader and student council member Mckenzie Fry all participated in last year’s drive, and are back for their second go this year.
Seeing the homeless veterans helped bring the students an important perspective.
“It just makes me feel grateful for what I have,” Fry said. “It makes me feel better knowing that I’ve helped someone instead of just walking past them.”
Cannon said he often sees dramatic change in the students who help with the process.
“I don’t think anyone who has ever gone can say that they’re the same afterward,” Cannon said.
He also said that students who have helped in the past still contact him to make donations.
“They just want to keep on giving and it builds a giving spirit but also a servant’s heart.”
As Fry, Sexton and Van Scoy bolted around the room from box to box and donation to donation, Cannon stood and watched, beaming with pride as the three showed their dedication to helping others.
“Those are lessons that you can’t teach in a textbook,” he said. “You can already tell their hearts have changed.”
Cannon and student council co-sponsor Joshua Lanham both marveled at how devoted every student who helps is to the cause.
“Caring and kindness are so important to our students,” Lanham said.
Cannon said that goes beyond the 31 kids on the student council.
“This generation cares more about each other than any generation I have ever seen in my 64 years,” he said. “It’s refreshing to see that kind of renewal of kids who are willing to get out there and help and do good in their communities.”
“They see things so much faster and are instantly connected with things they care about and causes they want to support,” he said. “They get this information and then want to jump in. They just care about each other.”
“They don’t want to be part of the division,” Cannon said. “They want to be part of the solution.”
Fifteen hundred pounds of clothes and personal items requires a lot of boxes.
On this recent Friday, there were already several boxes stacked in the corner – and the three student council members were busy taping up more so they had somewhere to go with the most recent donations. More donations were waiting to be picked up in the office.
That’ll be a pretty common occurrence for Cannon’s students, but that’s par for the course he said.
“They can’t believe that veterans are actually out on the street with nothing, and I think that tears at their heart,” Cannon said. “The very thought that someone who served our country is homeless and in need, I think that just motivates them to give more and also they know by giving it to us it is going to the right place. We will make sure it gets in the right hands.”
The community support also benefits the students.
“It makes me feel really happy and just grateful and appreciative of our community,” Sexton said.
“I was worried that no one would donate anything,” Fry said. “But when I come in this room to help box, it just makes me feel really happy and grateful that everyone came together and donated.”
Cannon and the student council are collecting items across St. Charles and Warren Counties. They’re looking for new and used clothing, especially coats, blankets, hats, gloves, and new underwear and socks.
They’re also collecting personal care items such as deodorant, shampoo, body wash, bar soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, feminine products, and shaving cream. The only item they ask you not to donate is mouthwash.
In Warren County, Truesdale City Hall, at 109 Pinckney St., is the main collection hub.
They’ve already had a number of items come through for pick up. People can also take their items directly to the middle school at 405 Campus Drive in Wentzville.
But Cannon said he and his team will come to you if you have items to donate.
All you need to do is get ahold of Cannon, either by contacting him in Truesdale or at the school.
Donations will be collected through Nov. 28 and given to homeless veterans on Dec. 1.
“I believe it’s a calling,” Cannon said. “I’ve been called to do this, and I believe that Josh will continue on with that. That’s really important to me.”
“Please reach out if anyone has anything to give,” Lanham said.
About the author: Jason Koch is the editor of The Warren County Record, and covers local news and government for the newspaper. He has won multiple awards from both the Indiana and Illinois APME and from the Illinois Press Association. He can be reached at 636-456-6397 or at email@example.com