Stefano Grande was telling a story when he got a shoutout from the crowd.
At Thursday’s kickoff press conference for the third annual CEO Sleepout on Sept. 26, the executive director of Downtown Biz suddenly had a surprise gift on his hands.
Albert El Tassi, president and CEO of Peerless Garments, spoke up with an offer of comfort — 100 sleeping bags and at least two dozen coats.
"We will make 100 sleeping bags to give away to people who need them," El Tassi said, from his seat in the crowd. During his brief speech as a participating CEO, he had already pledged at least two dozen coats.
"If you need a coat, you come see me," he said, to the delight of the assembled crowd.
El Tassi is one of 100 CEOs (chief executive officers) community leaders and members of the media who will be sleeping outside on Sept. 26 at 201 Portage Avenue (near the corner of Portage and Main) to raise money and draw attention to the struggle and strain being experienced by those in Winnipeg who are homeless.
Grande had been telling the story of how many of last year’s Sleepout participants gave away their sleeping bags during the night to people on the street who didn’t have warm blankets when El Tassi extended his offer.
"It was totally unexpected, a great spirit of giving," Grande said. "All of us in the corporate sector have a responsibility to understand how homelessness affects our city and our citizens. This is a big issue and it has to be addressed with workable solutions.
El Tassi said sleeping bags, though not on his company’s usual list of items manufactured, are one way to help people on the road to a long-term solution.
"I’m going to create some. I can make them, it’s not a problem," said El Tassi, with Peerless Garments for 44 years. "We provide garments for the entire army, navy, airforce, RCMP so I can make anything. We’re going to make these sleeping bags at Peerless. Sometimes the best ideas are spontaneous."
The sleeping bags will take a few weeks to make, so El Tassi said they will be delivered to Siloam Mission upon completion. He’ll bring the coats to the Sleepout to give away that night to people who need them.
Grande said $100,000 has already been raised leading up to this year’s event but the overall goal is $150,000.
The money is used to fund programs such as Siloam Mission’s Mission: Off the Streets Team (MOST), a program that employs people who are homeless to clean up or do other work in Winnipeg’s downtown area that helps them build skills to hopefully assist the participants in getting a job. More than $220,000 has been raised in the past two years.
In 2012, 23 people were employed using funding from the CEO Sleepout for litter pickup and beautification projects.
The list of who’s who at the 2013 CEO Sleepout includes Winnipeg Free Press columnist Doug Speirs, Sport Manitoba president and CEO Jeff Hnatiuk, One Fit City owner Jordan Cieciwa and Spectrum Health Centre chiropractor and diving coach Keith Pearch.
To see a full list of participants or to donate, go to www.changeforthebetter.org. To donate by mail, send a cheque or money order made out to "Downtown Biz - Change for the Better," 426 Portage Ave., Winnipeg, Man., R3C 0C9 or watch for collection boxes downtown.