This is one in a series of Hometown Heroes, profiling people who inspire us in the Tampa Bay area.
TAMPA - One Christmas morning a few years ago, chiropractor Neal Sayers and his son, Trevor, accompanied Andre Kirwan to give out donated clothing and toiletries to the homeless in a downtown Tampa nightclub parking lot.
Sayers was intrigued by the concept of Kirwan's "No Strings Attached" ministry, directed at serving the poor on Thanksgiving and Christmas mornings.
Then he saw Kirwan remove his size 12½ shoes and hand them over to a man who was obviously down on his luck. The expression on the surprised man's face told it all: He was overwhelmed by the generosity of a complete stranger.
From that moment on, Sayers was sold on joining Kirwan's volunteer corps.
"It was awesome. It was amazing," Sayers gushed to his wife, Becky, later that day. "He said the guy needed the shoes more than he did. This is something I want to be part of."
With that, Sayers became one of the ministry's most committed and tireless workers.
It is hard to sum up Andre Kirwan, 38, in just a few words.
He's a commercial banking officer for the Bank of Tampa. In his spare time, Kirwan volunteers as a youth pastor at his church, helps coach the Berkeley Prep football team, runs a personal training business called AthElite, serves as president-elect of the Warrick Dunn Foundation and is on track to complete his MBA at University of South Florida next May.
His schedule is dizzying. Fortunately, he doesn't need a lot of sleep.
And then there's the ministry he founded in 2007.
No Strings Attached started small, with a few friends who wanted to do more than just write a check to a cause. That first year, after collecting donations over several months, they gave out about 1,500 items to dozens of homeless people who showed up on Thanksgiving morning.
Once Kirwan planted the seed, the movement blossomed. He is quiet and humble — and relentless when it comes to tapping into his vast community network to ask for support. He sent emails to friends and family, got backing from his workplace and enlisted help from his congregation at MorningStar Church. And the ministry has grown to about 50 volunteers who will distribute up to 14,000 items at Thanksgiving and Christmas giveaways this year.
Donations are collected throughout the year and stored in garages, offices and warehouses. There's no budget and no board meetings. And for the recipients, there are "no strings attached." The charity gets the word out through flyers and word of mouth.
"What I like best is the personal interaction," Kirwan says. "Most of us have a place to go on the holiday. Most of them don't. Seeing us out there lets them know they are loved and cared for and, trust me, it does make a difference. We give out a lot of hugs and prayers."
Edgar Guzman of the Guzman Law Group describes his longtime friend this way: "If society had more people like Andre Kirwan, with his positive energy and tireless work ethic, we wouldn't have the problems we have today. He's got the charisma and the credibility to get people motivated to do the right thing."
Kirwan says it wasn't any one particular incident that inspired him to organize this homeless outreach, other than a simple Scripture from Luke 12:48: "To whom much is given, of him shall much be required." It was "wrenching" for him to see desolate people living on the streets, so he looked for a way he could ease their burden.
"I believe being a Christian is about leaving a legacy," he says. "Not one of riches, or material wealth, but a legacy of hard work, determination, respect, compassion, love and humility."
Those are values instilled in him by his parents, he says. His father, a physician, put himself through medical school by working as a night porter for the railroad and in food preparation for the airlines. His mother was a registered nurse and her husband's office manager. They showed their three children how to live by example, and they stressed the importance of community service.
Kirwan graduated from Jesuit High School in 1992, then headed west to Stanford University for four years, where he juggled pre-med studies with playing wide receiver on the football team. He put his plans to become a doctor on hold when sports agents started calling. Kirwan ended up spending eight years in the Canadian Football League playing for the Toronto and Ottawa teams.
He lived a good life as a professional athlete. But he never lost sight of his roots, he says, and those lessons his parents taught him. When he returned home to Tampa after retirement, he sought out professional opportunities that would allow his spiritual side to flourish.
It was a perfect match at Bank of Tampa, says founder Jerry Divers.
"He is smart, personable and just the kind of candidate we seek," Divers says. "But more important, he represents what our culture is all about here. We encourage all our officers to be involved in one or two charities. Right away, I could see he epitomizes our philosophy."
Yes, he's a good employee, the bank founder says. But it's the other qualities he brings to the table that impresses Divers.
"He could do anything in life that he wants to do, and he chooses to help people," Divers says. "There is nothingphony about him. At home with my wife, I refer to him as St. Andre."
Divers and Bank of Tampa employees are big supporters of No Strings Attached. So is Kevin Edmonson of Edmonson Electric, who met Kirwan while doing business with the bank. When he found out about the ministry, he went out on a Christmas morning with his wife and was "blown away" by what he witnessed.
"It wasn't exactly in my comfort zone, to be honest," Edmonson admits. "You got all these people coming toward you and it's not in the best area, so you're not sure what to expect. Andre said it would be OK. And he was right. It was an incredible experience."
Edmonson offered space in his warehouse this year to store the 650 pairs of jeans collected through the Jesuit Easter Donation drive this past spring. Last month, he brought them to the Thanksgiving giveaway.
"You see the appreciation, and it was something you will never forget," he says. "Andre called and thanked me for my help, but it's me who should be thanking him. Because this has changed my life and how I look at things."
Kirwan was on the road after work on the night of Nov. 14, heading to his youth group to teach, when he took a call from a friend.
"Andre, I've got some really, really bad news," she said. "Neal is dead."
It was a sudden and tragic accident. Sayers and his youngest son were at home playing baseball. He climbed on his roof to retrieve a ball and slipped off. He was just 44.
"Hearing something like that, so horrible, that you just can't comprehend it," Kirwan recalls, his voice breaking. The tears still flow quickly when he thinks of his close friend. "The shock is paralyzing. It's like you're hit in the gut and you can't catch your breath."
He thought of Sayers' wife of nearly 20 years, Becky, and their three sons, ages 16, 13 and 9. He thought of all the patients at HealthSource Chiropractic who loved Sayers, not just for his practice, but for his warmth, strong faith and community commitment. Every month, Sayers sponsored a different charity, raising money through raffles and other fundraising efforts.
And what Sayers did for No Strings Attached was immeasurable.
From that first giveaway he was hooked, coming out every holiday after that. The rest of his years, he lived up to his motto: "Go big or go home." He shopped at Sam's Club, filling up the shopping cart with packages of underwear, socks and T-shirts, and ordered more items off liquidation websites. He bought hundreds of backpacks so the homeless wouldn't have to carry away items in plastic bags.
His office became a storage unit for donations. Bring in some clothing, he told people, and you get a free consultation.
"He was known for his boldness," Becky Sayers says. "When he embraced something, he gave it his all."
Kirwan knew he would have to find the fortitude to work through his sadness and carry on with the giveaway, less than two weeks away. That's what Sayers would want.
On Thanksgiving morning, as volunteers scrambled to set up tables, hang up clothes and greet the throngs of homeless waiting for them, Kirwan looked across the lot and saw two of Sayers' sons, Trevor, 16, and Andrew, 13.
They came to honor their father's legacy. He taught them the value of service, and though their grief was still raw, they knew this is where they had to be.
"He was the best example in my life," says Trevor, a junior at Jesuit. "Everything he did, he took to the next level. I could feel him smiling down at us."
The volunteers gathered for a group prayer led by Kirwan. He was flanked on either side by his late friend's sons. At that moment, Kirwan says, he knew they would get through this together, and No Strings Attached would thrive.
As Christmas approaches, supporters are picking up donations, sorting through boxes and bags, and preparing for the next giveaway. This is the overwhelming time of year for the ministry. Kirwan thinks a lot about his friend, and how Sayers would be texting and calling him with last-minute ideas.
Kirwan also knows what Sayers would be saying: Don't mourn me. I'm in heaven now. You've got business to attend to. Go big or go home.
"Neal was all about passion and compassion. And I want that light to continue to shine," Kirwan says. "So we keep moving forward and we honor his memory by giving a voice to people who don't have one. We've only just begun here."
Tell the story of your Hometown Hero
We're looking for everyday people who help others in ways big and small, motivated only by kindness and a desire to make our community a better place. Send your nominee's name and a brief description of his or her selfless acts to Hometown Heroes, Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 191, Tampa, FL 33601. Or go to TBO.com, search: Hometown Heroes, to fill out an online form.
How to help No Strings Attached
See the No Strings Attached ministry at work on Michelle Bearden's "Keeping the Faith" segment at 5:30 p.m. tonight on WFLA-TV. You can contact Andre Kirwan directly at: email@example.com. To make a clothes donation, contact MorningStar Church at (813) 960-3030 or drop off items at 16440 Hutchinson Road, Tampa. Monetary donations to No Strings Attached can be made at www.mstarchurch.org.