LeRoy John Oestreicher was born in Chicago, Illinois on May 16, 1913, the son of John and Mae Oestreicher. Roy grew up in a blue-collar Chicago neighborhood called South Lawndale, now known as Little Village, which at the time was a predominantly Czech immigrant community. Roy’s Czech roots ran deep as his mother spoke Czech and attended the Lawndale Emmanuel Bohemian Baptist Church, which held its services in both Czech and English. His wife Ruth’s parents, Charles and Bessie Bohatec, both emigrated from Czechoslovakia when teenagers, and Ruth’s father was a dedicated minister in Czech speaking churches.
Roy’s mother was a devoted Christian who faithfully took Roy and his three sisters to church services, Sunday school, and to all the youth events at their church. His father was a kind, quiet man who worked as a piano finisher in the Kimball Piano factory near their home. Growing up, Roy was a tall, skinny, shy young man whose main social outlet was participating in activities at his church. His formative years in the 1920s and 30s were a rough and tumble time for Chicago. Prohibition was instituted and repealed, organized crime surged, local city government corruption was rampant, segregation was the rule of the day, and racism raged supreme.
The great depression hit just as Roy graduated high school. Fortunately, his family was able to purchase a small house before the depression struck, but they still struggled financially and for a time had to go on relief. Roy and Ruth were married on September 21, 1940 at the Lawndale Emmanuel Baptist Church. Several years after their marriage, Roy was drafted into the army during World War II. He was on his way to the Philippines, having been deployed to serve as a medic, when the war ended. Instead of returning to the United States, his ship continued on to the Philippines where Roy had the opportunity to become involved with many Filipino Christians.
After returning from military service, Roy, along with Lance Latham and others, was involved in the founding of New Tribes Mission, a mission dedicated to serving unreached tribal groups. In anticipation of being a missionary pilot with New Tribes, Roy took flying lessons and earned his pilot’s license. He was also on the early executive board and served as the business manager. Today, New Tribes Mission, now known as Ethnos360, is a global organization with more than 3,000 missionaries working in 20 countries. Roy, however, was never able to fulfill his dream to become a missionary pilot. Rather, he started a fledgling construction business, which gave him the freedom to spend time serving youth as director of Christian youth programs and camp ministries—which he continued for the rest of his life. In the late 1940s, Roy became involved with Sunshine Gospel Mission, a rescue mission on Clark Street in the heart of Chicago’s skid row, where William Dillon, Sr. was superintendent. Roy began organizing Sunshine’s summer camp effort and from that time on was volunteer director of Camp Sun-Chi-Win. He was also on the board of directors at Sunshine and at times volunteer youth director of Sunshine’s youth program, which was run out of the three-story youth center across from the Sunshine rescue mission. The kids drawn to the mission youth clubs and camps were from low-income families living near the mission. Many kids came from the Cabrini low-rise housing projects the city built in 1942.
Around 1950, the city of Chicago instituted a policy of “Urban Renewal,” or slum clearance, and from 1958 to 1962, the Chicago Housing Authority built 30 high-rise apartment buildings with thousands of apartments. At the time of their completion, these high-rise buildings were touted as a model of successful public housing, but as the years progressed the buildings deteriorated. They were poorly designed for large families, and they were poorly maintained. The lowest income people were segregated in “project ghettos,” the crime rate rose, and gangs thrived. The target population for Sunshine’s year-round youth clubs and summer camps were the kids living in what became known as Cabrini-Green. The Cabrini-Green projects eventually were declared a colossal failure and were demolished and replaced with mixed income housing.
Through his association with North Side Gospel Center, Roy became involved in developing a Christian youth club model based on Scripture memorization. Many churches became interested in using this type of youth ministry, and in 1950 the Awana Youth Association was born. Roy served on Awana’s early board and later brought Awana to Sunshine Gospel Mission and to Lawndale Emmanuel Baptist Church and Village Gospel Center, two churches in his old neighborhood of Little Village.
Today, Awana has grown to be a worldwide non-profit ministry, providing Bible based evangelism and discipleship solutions for children and young people ages 5 to 18. It has over 56,000 clubs in the United States and countries around the world. Roy and his wife Ruth spent many years working together as partners in Awana club youth ministries as well as at Camp Sun-Chi-Win. While working at camp in July 1966, Roy was injured while putting in a pier at the lake. The following weekend Roy was at camp again along with his whole family when he suffered a complication from the injury. He was rushed to the hospital, but passed away on July 8, 1966.
Roy’s work was not in vain and continues to bear fruit today. In spite of Roy’s life being cut short, his legacy lives on at home as well as around the world. Roy’s three children (Sharon Oestreicher Kotapish, Wayne Oestreicher, and Beverly Oestreicher Kvasnicka) have set up a scholarship fund in honor of their father’s extraordinary life. This will help fund Sunshine youth to attend summer camp at Kids Across America in Branson, MO and YoungLife camp in Michigan. Please click HERE if you would like to donate to this fund.