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Home > Media News > The Tidings

Tri-Parish 'Brothers' Helpers,' founded by retiree, feeds LA's homeless
by Paula Doyle, Staff Writer


John Olsen was restless in retirement. After running three mannequin manufacturing companies and raising eight children alone after his ill wife left the family 23 years ago, Olsen, 74, "was having a hard time finding stuff to do" as an almost empty-nester about five years ago.

When he was younger, he had thoughts of being a missionary or helping poor people. However, when he tried to join a religious order as a near-septuagenarian, he was told he was too old. So, he answered a church bulletin ad for a full-time sacristan at St. Bede the Venerable Church in La Cañada and got involved with the parish Peace & Justice ministry.

In 2003, he was a participant in St. Bede's biannual outreach project bringing food to L.A.'s inner-city homeless in cooperation with the Missionaries of Charity Brothers. St. Bede volunteers brought home cooked food to the Brothers' house where it was loaded in the religious order's van and driven to homeless havens under bridges and cardboard boxes.

"I thought that was wonderful," said Olsen. He yearned to increase the outreach project and approached the Missionaries of Charity about partnering with parishioners in a weekly ministry to deliver nutritious meals to the homeless. He picked a date six weeks into the future on May 21, 2003 to debut the program and managed to recruit a team of five motivated parish volunteers to deliver 60 home-cooked meals to downtown homeless.

After recruiting three more teams (each responsible for cooking meals once a month), the all-volunteer program supported solely by donations was in full swing. Two months after starting, however, the Missionaries of Charity had to pull out due to other project commitments. Undaunted, the volunteers, calling themselves "Brothers' Helpers," carried on with their fledgling ministry of providing hot meals to the homeless of Los Angeles one day a week on Wednesdays.

Tri-parish project

Initially, the volunteers cooked and assembled all meals at home, then transported the food in a parishioner's van to the homeless gathered on Los Angeles Street near Union Station. Demand for dinners quickly went from 60 to 120, and Olsen decided to double the group's efforts by offering Monday night dinners as well.

"We've been feeding the same group of people for over four years," said Olsen. When a decision was made a few months later to distribute food adjacent to Our Lady Queen of Angels (La Placita), the homeless diners quickly followed.

On Monday nights, tables and chairs are placed on the church plaza where close to 180 Los Angeles homeless men and women are served a hot meal cooked, packaged, delivered and shared by Brothers' Helpers from St. Bede's and two neighboring Verdugo foothill parishes.

This year, parishioners at St. James the Less Church in La Crescenta and Holy Redeemer Church in Montrose started cooking for the Brothers' Helpers homeless project on Tuesday and Thursday nights, respectively. Food is delivered and distributed to the homeless on Tuesdays and Thursdays across the street from the new Homeboy Industries site at the corner of Alameda and Alpine near Union Station.

Besides the Monday and Wednesday food deliveries to La Placita, Brothers' Helpers also furnish meals to women's shelters, including the Languille Emergency Shelter and Good Shepherd Center (Mondays), and Hawkes Transitional Residence (Wednesdays). After delivering food, tablecloths and fresh flowers grown at St. Bede's, Brothers' Helpers dine and socialize with the residents.

"To a lady, they say, 'You know what's different about you guys? You sit down with us and treat us as equals.' They appreciate that," said Mark Sullivan, a St. Bede parishioner and board member president of Brothers' Helpers, which incorporated as a non-profit agency in Jan. of 2007. Long-term plans for the non-profit include opening a downtown walk-in center as well as a homeless shelter staffed by compassionate listener/helpers.

Olsen serves as Brothers' Helpers executive director, working 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Thursday. He serves weekdays part-time as St. Bede's sacristan, and, four days a week, oversees Brothers' Helpers' 150 volunteers who buy supplies, cook, transport and distribute food.

According to Olsen, nearly 7,000 meals a month are prepared between two ministries: Brothers' Helpers who make 700 hot dinners a week and St. Bede's "Skidettes," a longtime group of volunteers who weekly package 1,000 sack lunches for downtown homeless shelters. Donations cover costs, which, for Brothers' Helpers, total approximately $1,400 a week.

"The Holy Spirit just really guides the whole thing. He takes care of us," said Olsen. "The money comes whenever we start to get low. When I think nobody's going to show up, all of a sudden at the last minute these people just come."

'Something positive'

The Monday before Christmas Eve, close to 20 people showed up to prepare food and package donated gifts and socks. The menu that evening was meatballs, peas, pasta with marinara sauce, bread, cookies, coffee, juice and hot chocolate. Dinners are individually packaged in Styrofoam boxes about 6 p.m. and whisked off to their respective destinations by 7 p.m. in an old "surfer" van with a brown-robed friar painted on the door.

"One of our mottos is, when we go downtown, we leave it cleaner than we found it. There's not a trace that we leave behind," said John Oliphant, vice president and secretary of Brothers' Helpers and St. Bede parishioner who helps deliver food. Fellow parishioner, Rosemary Durkin, 65, who does the Monday cooking with Holy Redeemer parishioner, Margaret Steenken, 57, says she has been participating for four years because she "loves it" and enjoys the company of the volunteers.

"I like to cook," explained Steenken, who picks up surplus bread and cake items from Quiznos and Starbucks, among other food purveyors, on Monday mornings and cooks that same evening at St. Bede since Holy Redeemer has more than enough volunteers on Thursdays. "The young people enjoy [helping]; they like to see adults giving up their time," commented Steenken.

Holy Redeemer parishioner Luke Delgado, 28, a law clerk who grew up in St. Bede's, said he heard Olsen talking about Brothers' Helpers one day at church. "It seemed like it was something good to do, something positive and worthwhile," said Delgado, who tries to make it one night a week to help transport food.

St. Bede parishioner Richard Marin, 37, a catering chef who cooks as needed and often drives the van downtown, remarked: "Cooking is my passion, my hobby. Why not do it when God is involved?"

Cal Elshoff, 79, father of St. Francis High School president Capuchin Franciscan Father Matt Elshoff, has gone downtown with deliveries as well as served on the dishwashing crew. "At my age, you've got to have something to do instead of just looking at other people do things. And, it keeps you young," added Elshoff.

Maria Lopez, 66, a St. James parishioner whose grandson, Christian Smissen, 13, helped out in the food assembly line for the first time recently, goes downtown on Monday and Tuesday nights to serve as a Spanish-speaking translator.

"When you see people waiting for food, it breaks your heart. I'm going to do it as long as I can do it," said Lopez.

"[The homeless recipients] are constantly thanking you. You get a lot of hugs," added Olsen.


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