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Chester couple driven to protect area officers

Tom and Gloria Kellerhals are spearheading a movement to raise money for the purchase of bulletproof vests for the Chester County's law enforcement officers. Their Gadsden Street business, The Westminster Group, seen here, is one location where people can donate.
Tom and Gloria Kellerhals are spearheading a movement to raise money for the purchase of bulletproof vests for the Chester County's law enforcement officers. Their Gadsden Street business, The Westminster Group, seen here, is one location where people can donate.

CHESTER -- Tiffany Thomasson worries about her husband, Jonathan, patrolling the streets of Chester County without a bulletproof vest.

So she asked her boss for an advance on her commissions so she could pay the $700 cost of putting a potentially life-saving garment over his shoulders.

"It's not like you can tell him to get a different job," said the 25-year-old wife of a sheriff's deputy and mother of a boy who will celebrate his first birthday in July. "A police officer is a police officer."

Touched by their young employee's resolve and stunned that some of the people charged with protecting their community lacked protection themselves, Tom and Gloria Kellerhals launched a drive to provide the county's law enforcement officers with bulletproof vests.

The Kellerhals, owners of the recruiting firm the Westminster Group, hope to raise $12,000 by July 21. That's enough money to buy 15 vests, with about half going to the sheriff's office and the rest split between the Great Falls and Fort Lawn police departments.

The campaign kicked off Friday when a handful of volunteers began placing empty mayonnaise jars at area businesses. Gloria Kellerhals made a brief presentation at Monday night's County Council meeting, and Tom Kellerhals expects to soon hit the streets asking businesses to donate.

The couple also posted a large plywood thermometer in a display window at their Gadsden Street office to indicate how much money has been raised. Thomasson even created a Web site to inform people about the project and show how much money has come in.

More than $1,300 had arrived by Tuesday afternoon.

The drive will be capped off with a "Vest-i-val," a free bluegrass concert July 21 in the vacant lot beside Kimbrell's in downtown Chester.

Having worked in the Naval Criminal Investigative Service -- the U.S. Navy unit depicted in the popular television show "NCIS" -- Tom Kellerhals has worn a protective vest before.

"Ultimately, they save lives," he said, noting that an estimated 30 percent of the officers killed in the line of duty could have been saved if they'd been wearing body armor.

"Thirty percent's a big number," he said. "That doesn't even count injured officers."

The percentage is one of several the group discovered during research about bulletproof vests. Another statistic they found is a U.S. Department of Justice estimate that 25 percent of state and local police officers do not have body armor.

"These guys are running around with old vehicles, no vests," Tom Kellerhals said. "So I think we should step up to the plate and do what we can."

Other people also have been doing what they can.

One guy from Florida sent a $50 check. A lady came into the Westminster Group office Tuesday afternoon to share $50 and said she'd have more when she got her next paycheck.

She told Gloria Kellerhals that her son is a sheriff's deputy who doesn't have a vest. The woman even asked if she could hold a bake sale to help out.

"I can't buy him one," the lady said to Kellerhals. "So I'm going to help other people buy him one."

One problem for police is that their vests only last five years. For smaller departments, the extra armor would be a luxury.

"That'd be huge," said Fort Lawn Police Chief Richard Smith, who will soon need to replace his department's two vests and would like to get four others for his reserve officers.

But the drive isn't just for people who wear a badge; it's also for the husbands and wives who wait for the spouses that wear those badges to come home.

"I couldn't imagine something happening to him," Thomasson said of her 26-year old husband. "I think him having something that could save his life, I think that means more than you can put into words."

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