Every December, there’s a man up north who delivers thousands of gifts to thousands of children. He has the heart of a saint and a list he checks twice, but he doesn’t wear a red suit. And instead of eight tiny reindeer, he has a fleet of 250 airplanes and 34 semi trucks.
His name is Mike Pipia, global logistics manager at Guardian Industries – a Koch Industries company – and since the winter of 1989, he has put his training and experience in logistics to work for Operation Good Cheer, a program coordinated by Child and Family Services of Michigan to ensure foster kids have a happy holiday.
“I kind of got into it by accident,” said Pipia with a chuckle. “Somebody asked my wife if she knew anybody who could get them a truck for volunteer work, and my wife volunteered me.”
Since Operation Good Cheer began in 1971, the number of children served and the needs of the program have grown every year. This year, the program will answer the Christmas wishes of 6,771 children by delivering a record 20,313 gifts to foster homes across the state.
“It’s all about giving back to the community and giving back to the people who have done great things for us,” said Pipia. “That’s the important thing. This is my way of doing that. I can use my talents in logistics, and it’s very fulfilling to start Christmas off this way.”
Added Pipia, “It’s a lot of fun and it’s for a good cause … I mean, I work on it, but it’s not work to me.”
While it might not feel like work for Pipia, it’s still a herculean task that starts back in August when he gets a phone call from Sherry Brackenwagen, administrative director at Child and Family Services of Michigan. It’s during that call that Brackenwagen gives Pipia two very important numbers – the number of kids being served that year and the number of gifts needing to be transported.
“Mike’s background in logistics has been overwhelming for us,” said Brackenwagen. “And I think he’s the perfect example of a Santa. He really wants to give to the kids, and that’s what I just love about him. I definitely couldn’t do it without him and his experience.”
As a member of the Transportation Club of Detroit, Pipia immediately puts the word out and begins to work his way down a list of contacts, knowing exactly which types of trucks and amount of cargo space he needs to hit his numbers. It typically doesn’t take long before trucking companies and organizations start committing their services and vehicles to the cause, including Guardian Industries.
“I have truckers who come back year after year because they love doing it, and they love going to some of the same homes. I have truck drivers that dress up as Santa Claus – I have one driver, he and his dispatcher dress as Santa and Mrs. Claus. I’ve got people that decorate their trucks with everything from reindeer horns to Christmas lights. They just have a ball doing it.”
With commitments from trucking companies and truck drivers locked down, Pipia’s focus then shifts to planning the gift drop-off and delivery process – a hectic, nonstop 36 hours of go, go, go spread across two days. It’s an organized chaos that might give anyone else in Pipia’s position an anxiety attack. But it’s also an opportunity for Pipia to change hats and lean more on his abilities as an organizer of people – lots and lots of people.
“Over the course of the weekend, I think we have 2,000 volunteers who give up their Friday and/or Saturday to come help unload semis and sort gifts by destination so that everything is ready for Saturday morning,” said Brackenwagen.
Accommodating 2,000 volunteers, let alone 20,000 gifts, also requires a lot of space and resources, so a local donor loans Operation Good Cheer an airport hangar large enough to house two jumbo jets. And Pipia and his team put every square inch of available space to good use.
“Nobody understands what 20,000 gifts looks like,” said Pipia. “Nobody understands the size of things when you say, ‘I fill up a hangar with gifts stacked six feet tall and the floor is completely filled.’ Or that we’re loading up airplanes, we’re loading up semi trucks. People say, ‘That’s impossible.' And I tell them, no, it’s not impossible.”
Those six-foot-high piles of gifts certainly don’t stack themselves, and that’s where having so many helpers really comes in handy. It’s a thing of beauty to watch total strangers work side by side in synchronicity, forming human chains 50 yards long to pass gifts down line until every truck is empty.
Once gifts have been stacked and checked on Friday, volunteers get to do it all over again in reverse Saturday morning. Human chains form again and those six-foot piles of gifts steadily shrink as gifts are loaded back onto a fresh convoy of trucks for final delivery.
What can’t be trucked is shuttled over to nearby Oakland County Airport, where the organization relies on 250 volunteer pilots and aircraft to fly gifts to the farthest reaches of Michigan. For the first three hours of that Saturday, Oakland County Airport becomes one of the busiest airports in the United States as planes touchdown, load up and take off every minute.
It’s only when the last truck has left the hangar and the final plane has flown off the tarmac that Pipia allows himself a moment to breathe and reflect on the mission. And in his 29 years of volunteerism, his busy weekend has always ended with “mission accomplished.”
“We’ve had weather issues. We’ve had the airport shut down one year and everything had to be trucked. But Christmas has always happened, and we’ve always delivered the gifts," he said. "We’ve never missed a delivery.”