Gold Star Family’s Thrift Shop Takes Aim at Helping Vets
New items are always arriving at Desert Eagles Nest Thrift Shop on Fort Path Road in Madison. Shelves are brimming with housewares, DVDs, vinyl records, trinkets, and toys and games. Clothing hangs from racks and the floor space is full of furniture. Only open for a few months, the thrift shop, owned by Helen Keiser-Pedersen and Bob Keiser, has taken off.
“The store was kind of a crazy idea that I had. A friend from Hartford had access to some higher end items through his real estate connections in West Hartford and provided the jump start to my idea, and the store has really grown and taken off,” Keiser explained.
Proceeds from the store benefit APK Charities’ Direct Assistance Program, providing support services and direct financial support to service members and their families who are in need of assistance. Through its partnership with New Haven-based Columbus House, APK Charities, founded by Keiser-Pedersen and Keiser, helps provide housing opportunities for the homeless. APK also works with the West Point Society of Connecticut, an organization that provides a wide variety of counseling and financial assistance to active military families and Gold Star families.
Keiser-Pedersen and Keiser unfortunately know the pain and struggles Gold Star families endure. Keiser-Pedersen’s only son, Andrew Pedersen-Keel, was a West Point graduate, Army Ranger Captain, Green Beret, and member of U.S. Special Forces when he was killed in March 2013 in Afghanistan while he was on his own base.
“We certainly didn’t expect this to happen when Andrew was on his own base. Helen (Andrew’s mom) would get regular phone calls, and these guys were extremely well-trained, so we didn’t have a heightened sense of fear,” said Keiser. “These Special Forces guys are very humble and don’t talk about what they do, so we were concerned for his safety like any parent would, but really thought that despite where he was, that he was reasonably safe. Our lives changed 180 degrees that day.”
According to Keiser, the thrift shop and APK charities evolved after conversations with the military personnel who was assigned to provide support and guide their family through the days that lay ahead.
“The Army assigns a Casualty Assistance Officer to families like ours. The one we were assigned was an incredible guy who is still in the national Guard, Corey Holmes, and his job is to walk us through the hundreds of documents that have to be filled out, the hundreds of decisions that have to be made about everything,” Keiser said. “He was really part of our family for four or five months.”
At Holmes’ suggestion, the family sponsored a 5K race, the APK 5K run and 5K Ruck Race, in Pedersen-Keel’s memory.
“That fall we did the first APK 5K run and also a 5k Ruck Race, which is how Rangers train, with a large 50-pound ruck sack while training. The idea was to have participants fill a ruck with goods and donate that to area food banks and the church food bank,” said Keiser. “That’s how it all started. And after nine years the charity really started to take off.”
Keiser added that the couple had begun to consider retiring after the race’s 10th year.
"The problem is that we’ve gotten so well-known in the state and the shoreline…we couldn’t really stop,“ he said.
Now, with Desert Eagles Nest Thrift Shop, retiring doesn’t seem to be on the radar. The store has begun to take on a life of its own shoppers coming back time-after-time and donations arriving regularly.
“We gratefully accept donations, especially monetary donations. We really like to focus on higher items for the thrift store,” Keiser said, explaining, “Frankly, we don’t want to give veterans junk or hard-used items. We really appreciate items of value that can sell.”
Keiser said that though their charitable efforts help in easing some of the pain the family continues to endure a decade after their loss, a chasm of grief remains.
“Andrew was very talented. He was an astute reader, he loved music, he had a tremendous circle of friends…and to get into West Point means he was very special person,” Keiser said. “To make it to the rank of captain, to become a Ranger and a Green beret takes a very special and unique person. In fact, he was so special he was successful in Afghanistan that local and provincial leaders not only liked him but looked up to him, and sadly that is why he was targeted and taken out. Andrew would have made an incredible contribution to this country had he lived. He was a truly great person to be around. He was a great soldier and a great person. He never ever spoke bad about anybody even if they deserved it. We miss him every day.”
Desert Eagles Nest Thrift Store is located at 170 Forth Path Road, Unit 14, Madison. For more information or to make a donation, call store manager Jan Cameron at 860-662-6310, or visit facebook.com/deserteaglesthriftstore or apkcharities.org.