JOHNSTON, Iowa – Shortly after the first snow of the season, Iowa National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Michael Sullivan pulled out his “Lil Red Wagon” for the third year in a row to collect donations for the Des Moines area homeless population.
“You feel how cold it is right now, even just being out here for a short time?” he said. “Now imagine having to stay outside in this all day, all night. That’s the reality for a lot of people. That’s why I do what I do.”
Sullivan is the assistant operations noncommissioned officer at the 734th Regional Support Group based at Camp Dodge. When Iowa joined the entire country in a lockdown at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sullivan noticed a change in his neighborhood. During his drive to work each day, he saw more and more tents along the banks of the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers.
“As people were being evicted or whatever circumstance happened to them, the number of tents alongside the river and park area tripled,” Sullivan said. “When Christmas season rolled around and the leaves started falling off the trees again, there was still that same amount. That told me these folks have been homeless anywhere from six to eight months or more.”
According to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report, Iowa was among the four states with the highest increase in homelessness between 2019 and 2020.
Sullivan decided he wanted to do something to help, and the idea for “Sully’s Lil Red Wagon” was born. Sullivan and his wife connected with a local charity they had worked with and pulled a list of donatable items.
That first year – Christmas 2020 – he set his wagon next to the large Christmas tree at Iowa’s Joint Force Headquarters as a marker for people to drop off donations. Sullivan was pleasantly surprised at the overwhelming support from his fellow Soldiers, and not just at Camp Dodge. Iowa Guard Soldiers traveled from Boone and even Perry to donate.
He was delivering a truckload of items every two weeks, and by the end of the drive, they had raised $400 in cash and $200 in purchased donations.
“Peanut butter, clothes, toothbrushes, hygiene items — everything that was on the list plus more,” Sullivan said.
In 2021, he raised $1,400 of cash and items and started donating to other Des Moines area charities that directly serve those in need. Sullivan said most of the time, the goods were handed out to people as soon as they were unloaded from the truck.
Sgt. 1st Class Alyssa Blazicek helped Sullivan set up and get the word out that first year.
“This is just a very small symbol of what Sullivan is, which is a giver,” said Blazicek. “Even though winter is when the homeless are sometimes more seen, he thinks about them year-round.”
Sullivan credits his upbringing for teaching him to put others before himself. His parents always preached that you are “blessed more than you realize.” He described a period of his life when things were tough and he went four days without food.
The harsh reality of food insecurity and homelessness in Iowa motivated him to put things in perspective and do what he could to help.
“You can see it when you pull up at a stoplight and there’s someone standing there with a sign,” Sullivan said. “You don’t know the circumstances that led to this person asking for money to survive. Some stories are true and some are not so true. But that’s their story, and I have no right to judge. They’re our fellow humans, and I just want to do what I can.”