DETROIT—Tire dealer Ross Kogel knows it takes a lot of money to help Detroit's homeless make the transition from poverty to living independently.
He knows it takes money to run the Ecumenical Theological Seminary (ETS), a school that brings together the Motor City's various religious communities in an interfaith learning environment.
But to really make a difference, it also takes a commitment of time.
"The important thing to me is the staying power," Mr. Kogel said about volunteering. "If you don't make a long-term commitment, you're not going to be much help to the organization."
Mr. Kogel's offering of time, money and support to the city's homeless, as well as to the development of the seminary, has earned the Michigan tire dealer the "2000 Tire Dealer Humanitarian Award."
Presented by Tire Business, the award annually recognizes a tire dealer or retreader who's making a difference in his or her community through charitable or civic contributions.
Mr. Kogel, owner of Tire Wholesalers Co. Inc. in Troy, Mich., was honored Oct. 31 during the Tire Association of North America's convention and trade show in Las Vegas. He received an engraved bronze medallion and a $1,000 donation from Tire Business to the charities of his choice.
This year, half the money went to the Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS), Detroit's largest homeless shelter, and half to ETS.
Nominated for the award by his son, Ross—the newly named executive vice president of the Tire Association of North America—Mr. Kogel walks the walk and talks the talk when it comes to helping others.
"Ross Kogel has touched a lot of lives—those who needed help, but also those who want to help," said John Wayman, an attorney and a friend of Mr. Kogel's.
For nine years until 1999, Mr. Kogel served on the board of COTS, including three years as president, helping it provide shelter, education and training to the homeless. He remains on the agency's development committee and continues as an enthusiastic, behind-the-scenes supporter.
"It's thankless work," said Mr. Wayman. "The turnover in people who help is high. Yet he selflessly keeps at it—not only as an officer but as a hands-on guy."
COTS is more than a hot meal and a bed. The shelter, located in an old hotel just off downtown Detroit's Woodward Ave., provided more than 51,000 emergency bed nights for those in need last year. It also assists, supports and encourages the homeless to live independently. "Our theme is helping homeless people help themselves," said Cheryl Johnson, COTS executive director.
Mr. Kogel learned of COTS 17 years ago when his son, Ross, served lunches there as part of his church confirmation class.
COTS was a relatively small place then, Mr. Kogel said, providing just emergency shelter, food and clothing.
"But as COTS developed, everybody said it's great that we can help out, but the problem was, we were seeing the same person or family every two weeks," he said. "We were not treating the problem; we were treating the symptom."
In the mid-1980s, Mr. Kogel began raising money for COTS as a member of its development committee. It was a time when the organization was struggling.
"With the help of a lot of people, we were able to expand the funding for COTS," he said, "because it all takes money—that's the secret to it. That's when we really started to be able to afford transitional services."
Mr. Kogel downplays his role at COTS, preferring to talk about the organization itself. But it was under his watch as a board member and president that COTS commited to expanding its transitional services and affordable permanent housing.
In 1991, COTS opened its first off-site transitional housing facility, a seven-unit apartment complex, and in 1995-96 it acquired a former convent, adding 23 more such units.
In transitional housing, individuals and families can live for up to two years, during which time they receive counseling, set goals, develop survival and marketable skills and maintain a substance-free lifestyle.
With housing prices on the rise in Detroit, COTS last year acquired a third apartment complex that it is renovating into 35 one-, two-, three- and four-bedroom apartments. It will use those to provide permanent, supportive, affordable housing for low-income individuals or families.
"I think what I am most proud of at COTS is getting these other buildings," Mr. Kogel said. "This takes a lot of money, but you have to provide affordable housing for people."
Ms. Johnson, who has worked with Mr. Kogel throughout her 10-year tenure at the shelter, called him an "energizing presence" there. "He's been dedicated to raising funds, awareness and the issue of homelessness in the Detroit area."
She also used terms such as genuine and fun-loving in describing him. But he's also known as "tenacious" when it comes to board meetings, where he presses the issue of responsibility.
"As a president and as a member of the board, he really challenged board members at every meeting about, `Where are you in terms of your giving to this agency? Where are you in terms of being creative in coming up with ideas and raising funds for this agency? Where are you in terms of your commitment?'|" she said. "This wasn't just someone saying it. This was a guy who does it."
Mr. Kogel's involvement with the homeless doesn't end at the COTS front door.
Over the years, he's hired numerous homeless people at Tire Wholesalers, including three current employees. Some have worked out. Others haven't. "But you have to keep going back," he said. "You have to keep trying."
"Part of his mission in life is to help those who need an opportunity," Mr. Wayman said, "and he's done it to his detriment."
He's also tireless in trying to recruit people to get involved in COTS.
One such person, Beth McKeown, attended a COTS fund raiser at Mr. Kogel's invitation. A former business development specialist for a hospital, Ms. McKeown was so impressed with COTS that she joined the development committee, became a board member and recently quit her job to become the agency's marketing manager.
She described Mr. Kogel as a highly focused, driven person.
"He's tenacious about COTS, tenacious about approaching people for funding and tenacious about raising awareness," she said.
But for all his fund-raising and board activities, "the most significant thing to me is that he sets an example by employing people from here. It's so powerful to say one of our board members has taken it so seriously that he hires COTS residents."
While COTS is a huge part of Mr. Kogel's volunteer life, the Ecumenical Theological Seminary is another. He was a board member for 11 years, having stepped down in 1999, and remains active in supporting the organization.
"The seminary is an important cog in making a city like Detroit work," he said. "It's a way of communicating in the city."
ETS draws students from southeastern Michigan who are interested in theological education. The seminary, located in the historic First Presbyterian Church building a block away from COTS, offers a number of academic degrees, including a doctor of ministry, master of divinity, a bachelor of theology, an urban ministry diploma and continuing education for laity and clergy.
In the late 1980s, when Mr. Kogel became a board member, funding was "more than tight' at ETS, said board chairman and faculty member Rev. David Swink. "Ross made major contributions moneywise, peoplewise, leadership- and expertwise," he said. "He was one of three or four people who gave us a boost to gain a solid foundation."
Drawing students and clergy from the city, suburbs and state, ETS is a special melting-pot type of place where, Rev. Swink said, they study together and get to know each other. When they leave, they keep connected, he said.
"This is one of the best possible leadership educational institutions for the healing of Detroit," he said. "This is the type of thing that will break down the walls (between people), and it's already starting to happen. We know it works.
"Ross...has really lived the vision we are trying to foster," he continued. "He's a suburban church leader serving at COTS."
ETS board member Peg Rosenkrands also cited Mr. Kogel's dedication. "He's been one those board members who committed long term," she said. "He attended meetings, problem-solved and was upbeat. A lot of times people find things wrong with an organization. But the cup is half full with him."
As with COTS, Mr. Kogel was reluctant to talk about his work at ETS or about his efforts helping others. "It's not what you talk about that matters," he said. "It's what you do."
But his wife, Lynne, an ordained Presbyterian minister who holds a doctorate in ministry and teaches at ETS, may have said it best: "Ross is involved in other peoples' stories."
He tries to help people, but in a way that preserves and enhances their self-worth, she said. "It's the sense of self-worth that enables everybody to move forward, including Ross."
This is true even at home.
"He's the real minister in the family, and he does it silently and without applause."