Spearheaded by Gus Stamoolis, Midnight Helpers, and the artist ROY

    Midnight Helpers

    Most Americans travel to Europe to sightsee. But Pittsburgh artist/jewelry-maker ROY—she assumed that name in capital letters as being more reflective of herself—saw more on a visit to Greece with her mother two years ago than she was expecting.

    Since then, she has been a spark in a major Pittsburgh volunteer effort that has been spearheaded by the Strip’s Stamoolis family. It has shipped to the Greek island of Chios more than three tons of used clothing, basic goods, and dried food.

    Gus, Maria, and Connie Stamoolis.

    Gus, Maria, and Connie Stamoolis.

    ROY has had a long relationship with Contemporary Craft in the Strip. In her late forties and the mother of two teenage daughters, she first met homeless Syrians in a shockingly impoverished refugee camp on Chios. “We had been told not to go to there because the refugees fight with each other,” she recalls. The camp, lying only five miles across the Mediterranean Sea from Turkey, resembled a ghetto. Some of the refugees landed there after crossing perilously in crude dinghies from the Turkish coast.

    “I had asked before I got to Chios if the refugees needed help and was told everything was fine. But I was shocked at what we saw there,” says ROY. The unofficial camp had been set up on the island’s wet beach and there was no heat in the cubical huts where the refugees huddled—and continue to do so there today.

    The original Midnight Helpers—left to right: Connie Stamoolis, Catina Stamoolis, Nina Williams, ROY, Zelfa Khalil, Christina Catsoulas Toras.

    The original Midnight Helpers—left to right: Connie Stamoolis, Catina Stamoolis, Nina Williams, ROY, Zelfa Khalil, Christina Catsoulas Toras.

    ROY had met cousins on Chios and already knew that her paternal grandfather, after escaping from a 1922 genocide in Smyrna (Asia Minor, now Turkey), had stopped on Chios as an immigrant to the United States en route to Pittsburgh. Despite the poverty ROY saw in the refugee camp, she was impressed by the talented young people, some of whom had dreams of college. Two young men she made friends with were already accomplished in painting and photography.

    The organization Midnight Helpers came about when her Syrian cousins told ROY they were donating used clothing to the refugees, and she wanted to help. ROY recalled advice that Fred Rogers, the late WQED-TV children’s television star, remembered his mother telling giving him as a boy: “No matter how down and out you may be, someone will come along to help you.” ROY incorporated that idea in her plans for the internet.

    Soon after returning to her home and studio in Fox Chapel, ROY and a group of artist friends began sending clothing to the refugees. ROY created the website MidnightHelpers.com, which solicits clothing donations for refugees on Chios. This is now a large group effort and has among its many members well-known Pittsburgh artist Kathleen Zimbicki, who gathered 20 pairs of women’s shoes and much of her husband Mike’s clothing he no longer wears.

    An example of ROY’s tiny tambourine jewelry.

    An example of ROY’s tiny tambourine jewelry.

    Important partners in this nonprofit project are Gus Stamoolis and his daughter Catina. They own a Strip District landmark since 1909: Stamoolis Brothers Company at 2020 Penn Avenue, well-known for its fine Greek olives, cheeses, and other Middle Eastern food products.

    Gus Stamoolis collects the clothing from ROY’s house in his company’s large delivery truck, which can hold four pallets of materials. He stores the clothing in his Pittsburgh warehouse until he has a large shipment for his rented warehouse on Chios. A committee of cousins and others are unpaid volunteers who freely distribute the clothing there. The mayor of Chios, Manolis Vournous, is aware of the program.

    Stamoolis comments: “We are part of Midnight Helpers 110 percent. It is no fault of the refugees that they need help. When I was a kid growing up after World War II, my parents sent rice and medicine to Europeans. This is a family tradition.”

    ROY is aware many Pittsburghers have refugees in their families living here: “Jews, Armenians, and Greeks living together, some 200 families in Pittsburgh alone,” she estimates.

    In her jewelry work, ROY joins precious gems and metals with tiny elements from actual protest street signs; one sign she knows asks for money just until the sign-maker’s paycheck comes due. ROY’s unusual work is in the permanent collections of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Her mixed-media piece
    Remembrance is touring the nation in the exhibition “IMAGINE Peace Now,” exploring artistic alternatives and pacific uses for guns.

    ROY also crafts what she calls her “tiny tambourine” jewelry. Symbolic of refugees and other homeless people, she cuts the miniature musical drums from brass Coca-Cola bottle caps. They are fitted together with minute silver rivets. She has exhibited these works in “Shelter,” an original exhibition at Contemporary Craft, Smallman Street. The show ended there on February 17 but is traveling across the United States.

    The Midnight Helpers website offers details on the kinds of donations sought, how to pack them, and where to drop them off on their way to refugees on Chios.

    Donald Miller, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette art and architecture critic emeritus, lives in Naples, Florida.