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ST. LOUIS – Fresh off winning best overall parade entry at this year’s PrideFest, around 30 members and supporters of the St. Louis Balloon Brigade were on hand at Meyer’s Grove, July 11, for the presentation of a $6,000 donation to PAWS St. Louis.

 

The money was raised by Brigade members leading up to PrideFest and following the Grand Parade on Sunday, June 29.

 

The Balloon Brigade is the brainchild of Terry Laupp, a former Mr. Missouri Leather and his husband Chad Carroll, a former Vice President of Pride St. Louis. The duo saw pictures online and figured out how to recreate the intricate balloon wraps for a cruise they were on in 2008. The response was immediate and the next year they debuted in the St. Louis Pride Parade.

 

“That first year we struggled to get six Brigade members to complete the rainbow and the morning of – the guy in green backed out and we scrambled and found someone as a fill in,” recalled Carroll. “And now we’re close to two blocks long – 36 full brigades and 50 wranglers or helpers.”

 

That first year it took Carroll and Laupp four hours to blow up 200 balloons. This past year they inflated 11,000 in close to five hours. The balloons are paid for through the generous support of Pinnacle Entertainment, the parent company of River City Casino, where Carroll works.

 

The Brigade or “Balloon Gods” immediately became one of the most photographed personalities at Pride and quickly realized the fundraising potential for a charity near to their hearts if they requested donations for the photo ops.

 

Pets Are Wonderful Support or PAWS is the only program of its kind in St. Louis; providing pet food and veterinary care for the pets of clients who are living with HIV/AIDS.  By providing this support, people with a chronic and often debilitating illness are able to keep their pets at home as long as possible.  PAWS helps maintain a lasting connection between client and pets. 

 

PAWS is not a funded program of EFA and relies solely on community donation like the Brigade or the upcoming Thirst for Life fundraiser on Thursday, Aug. 28. There are currently 65 pets enrolled in the program with 55 pets on a waiting list to receive services. The cost per pet for food service for a year is $780 and it’s an additional $245 per pet for veterinary services per year.

 

Brigade14“I fell in love with the program because I thought that it was something that was extremely viable – something that really performed a service to the people it served,” said Laupp of PAWS. “I can’t ever imagine myself having to make the decision: one, do I get my own meds or do I go to the doctor myself or do I take my pet to the doctor? I don’t think that’s a decision that anyone should have to make. If we can do this and alleviate all of that is one of the reasons it’s so important to me.”

 

It’s More than a Brigade, It’s a Family

 

The Balloon Brigade has become the parade image of St. Louis and its members are a close knit bunch.

 

“A lot of times when we talk to people about being in the Brigade they say, ‘oh I don’t have the right body type, I need to get to the gym’ – there’s always an excuse of why they can’t be in the Brigade,” explained Laupp.

 

“We accept everybody and once you put on the balloons you feel the power and the magic of the balloons,” he continued. “You turn that first corner and the crowd starts screaming and we’ve had people come up to us and say, ‘you guys – I have a picture taken with you every year, I make a donation to PAWS, you make my Pride for me’.”

 

Paul Vendrick joined the Brigade for the first time this year.

 

“My friend asked me to join and I was a little pensive at first because I was the oldest one.”

 

Vendrick quickly read up on the group and saw they were encouraging members to ask their friends for donations to PAWS ahead of PrideFest and realized most folks in his age group probably hadn’t been approached. He then got to work creating a contribution kit and started working “Golden Happy Hour” at Just John telling friends he would match up to the first $500 in donations.

 

“What I realized was that people need some kind of motivation to donate money,” said Vendrick. “So what I did was take the money that I was going to donate personally to PAWS and say I’m going to use that money to match your donations. So you guys come up with$500 and I’ll come up with $500 and together we’ll have a $1,000 for PAWS.”

 

His effort netted $1,369 – and as for being the oldest guy in the Brigade: “I knew at that point that we were doing something so much bigger then ourselves,” he said.

 

Socks ‘n Frocks

 

Last December when Chef Liz Schuster showed Gremlins at her wildly popular “Tenacious Eats”, Balloon Brigade member Thomas Cash and his buddies came up with a novel idea: sock puppets. In particular, 20 gremlin sock puppets created for audience members to sing along, play with, and incorporate the new additions into the festivities.Puppet

 

But when Chef Liz decided she was going to show different LGBT themed movies like The Bird Cage, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Hedwig and Sordid Lives for the month of Pride at Meyer’s Grove, the idea really took off.

 

“But what if we make sock puppet drag queens?” Cash thought. “And what if we actually made these and auction them off? Maybe we’ll make a couple hundred dollars and be able to donate the money to PAWS – because we’re all a part of the Balloon Brigade as well – and help boost that money for the donation.”

 

“We started making puppets and had so much fun,” he continued. “We had friends come over because they saw the pictures and wanted to see it and they made puppets. Sock puppet parties – craziness! I lost my dining room for the entire month of June. It was just filled with feathers and boas and google eyes.”

 

As the creativity flowed, the idea paid off and grew. It was a complete online action for a month. Meyer’s then decided to add a Facebook page where folks at “Tenacious Eats” could bid on separate themed puppets with the auction ending at the end of the movie.

 

“People started bidding from out of state because Del Shores saw the Sordid Lives puppets and posted them on his site and sent the link on where to bid on them and just last week I sent off a puppet to a woman who won a bid from Mississippi,” Cash explained. “We’ve raised over $2,500 so far. For sock puppets!”

 

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