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Home > Media News > The Tidings

Feeding the Hungry and Homeless Five Nights a Week
by Paula Doyle, The Tidings

Published: Friday, August 20, 2010


The Thursday night kitchen crew arrives at St. James the Less' parish hall in La Crescenta about 3 p.m.

The volunteers are members of Brothers' Helpers, who prepare and package meals Monday through Thursday afternoons at four Verdugo foothills area churches for evening delivery to the poorest of the poor living on the streets in downtown Los Angeles.

The Styrofoam-boxed meals stacked in large insulated carriers are transported to Our Lady Queen of Angels Church (La Placita) near Olvera Street, where a core group of La Placita volunteers help distribute the food in the evenings and prepare and serve meals on Friday night with money provided by Brothers' Helpers.

The St. James parishioners, including a few members of nearby St. Matthew Korean Center in Tujunga, waste no time on a recent July Thursday getting started on slicing, cubing, shredding and chopping food and boiling water for the evening's meal: macaroni and cheese with ham, salad, buttered bakery bread, dessert, juice and coffee.

Because it's the same menu every Thursday, the parishioners take their usual stations at the kitchen island counter, stove or hall table. While busy hands dice tomatoes, boil pasta and tear lettuce in the kitchen, others in the adjacent hall butter bread and slice desserts donated by area restaurants.

Today's 25 volunteers span the generations --- retired grandparents, a religious sister, middle aged parents, young adults and teenagers. They hail one another with hugs and catch up on the news since the previous Thursday.

Later, after the food is cooked, they will come together for intercessory prayer. They pray for one another, for the hungry homeless who gather in the hundreds at La Placita, and for Brothers' Helpers benefactors.

Parish donations are key

Without donations from area supporters and parishioners at the participating churches --- St. James, Holy Redeemer in Montrose, La Canada Presbyterian, and St. Bede in La Canada (where Brothers' Helpers was founded seven years ago by John Olsen) --- the project would come to a halt.

Food and transportation for the nearly 2,000 weekly meals costs $10,000 monthly. Four months ago, the nonprofit group's bank account was slapped with an overdraft penalty when the funds ran out. Fortunately, donors have come to the rescue since then, but the economic downturn has taken a toll, including on some of the volunteers who have recently lost jobs.

It's the work of the Holy Spirit, say volunteers, and they're hoping if more people hear about the ministry, they will donate money, time and/or clothing. Besides food, other necessities such as clothing and blankets are also donated to homeless and battered women's shelters, including Good Shepherd Center's Languille Emergency Shelter.

When the project started at St. Bede in 2003, 60 meals were prepared one night a week. Now, 300 meals prepared nightly are not always enough, especially near the end of the month when disability and social security checks run out. Last year, with the fallout from the recession, Brothers' Helpers saw a spike in the numbers of homeless seeking food and services. On the last Thursday in July, several seeking meals had to make do with salad when meals, sugar and coffee ran out.

"We're serving the working poor, the needy, the homeless and the mentally challenged," said Willie Olsen, logistics coordinator for Brothers' Helpers currently helping to fill in for his founder-father who is leaving soon for Africa to spend a year helping a former St. Bede's priest-in-residence establish a Catholic all-girls' school in the Wa region of Ghana.

According to Olsen, the homeless start arriving at La Placita around 4-4:30 p.m., sitting down at folding tables set up by parishioners at the back of the church courtyard. A line forms in the courtyard stretching out to the street after all seats are taken. "We serve at 7 p.m.," noted Olsen, "so if people are coming to get food, they didn't make it for a bed at a shelter" since the cut-off time for admittance is 6 p.m.

After eating either at the tables or seated along the curb of Paseo Luis Olivares, the side street next to the church's outdoor plaza shrine, the diners (approximately 70 percent are men aged 19-75, plus 25 percent women and 5 percent women with children) will head for sleeping spots.

"Homeless people typically will sleep anywhere around La Placita and down side streets. We're talking thousands upon thousands of people. It looks like a small army at night" in the area, said Olsen, whose 6' 2", 280-pound frame is a crowd control asset.

Before being allowed some months ago by the pastor to hand out the food at La Placita, members of Brothers' Helpers parked at a nearby corner on Alameda and Alpine where there were occasional run-ins with law enforcement objecting to sidewalk obstruction.

"Since we started setting up at La Placita," said longtime St. James' Brothers' Helper Joan Taix, "the parishioners have been so awesome. They want to do this work and we realized that we needed to let them do it. They normally do the distribution down there helping Willie and whoever else goes down."

Moira Hummel, St. Bede parishioner and Brothers' Helpers board president whose husband, Brian, often accompanies Willie to La Placita, said volunteering to feed the homeless has helped her grow spiritually since her family began participating six years ago. "It reminds you of the things that are important and reminds you of what you need to do to be more Christ-like," said the mother of three teenagers.

"It's really exciting to see how it's grown from just the one small group [preparing meals on] Monday and Wednesday nights to five nights a week with all the different parishes and organizations," said Brian Hummel, 51, an attorney who said he had never done anything like Brothers' Helpers hands-on service to the poor before but was inspired by John Olsen's vision and dedication.

"The Holy Spirit was telling me I needed to be there," on the street corner in the early years feeding the hungry, said Brian, wearing a tan polo shirt with the Brothers' Helpers emblem of the Holy Spirit in front of a cross.

'A great opportunity to help'

Bill Maddigan, 69, treasurer for Brothers' Helpers and one of the founding parishioner volunteers for the ministry at St. James, uses his financial acumen as a retired high school district business administrator to stretch the donations used to purchase food. The main course rotates according to the following weeknight schedule: Monday, Italian sausage on pasta; Tuesday, meatball stroganoff; Wednesday, hot dogs on succotash; Thursday, macaroni and cheese with ham; and Friday, soup and beans.

"Brothers' Helpers seemed like a great way to actually practice some of the things you believe in that mentally you subscribe to but you don't really demonstrate in any particular way," said Maddigan. "It was a great opportunity to help people who obviously need help."

Having done volunteer work in L.A. previously with the Catholic Worker and Loyola's Community Service Program accompanying high school students visiting homeless shelters on weekends, Maddigan knew about the needs of thousands of area homeless. It's estimated that more than 8,000 homeless roam the streets of Los Angeles.

"There's a big population of homeless, hungry and hurting people in L.A. In the area we live in, you don't really have to go looking for those people. They're there waiting for help," said Maddigan.

"I personally feel strongly that the people who are involved in this ministry really are called to do this and stay with it," said Peggy Sheridan, 50, who has volunteered along with her twin teenagers for Brothers' Helpers at St. Bede and La Canada Presbyterian. With her expertise in marketing for non-profits, she is trying to boost awareness and contributions for the ministry.

"John Olsen has a business background and applied a lot of those management principles --- like the efficiency of using the same [weeknight] menu items [and] not burning people out. He encouraged people to come [for food preparation] for two hours and then go home and not feel that they have to stay until 5:30 pm. All of these things together contribute to the longevity of it.

"I truly think," she added, "that this is the fulfillment of God's direction to feed the hungry and take care of the poor, and it leverages the resources of the lovely kitchens of the suburban churches. And there's a real energy to the multi-generational aspect."

"It's a wonderful program for the people here at St. James because it helps them to be involved personally," said Sister of Mercy Carol Baetz, 76, who has been a two-year Brothers' Helper at St. James. "It's also an opportunity for the seniors to get together. It's a social event for them. They come and they'll butter the bread or cut the desserts and package them. They talk to each other. There's no pressure to be here if they have other appointments, but most of them truly enjoy coming."

"I started because I needed something to do," said Sara Laue, 25, Maddigan's step-daughter who has finished school and is not currently working. "Bill had been doing it for years. I decided to come and I love it," said Laue, who usually helps mix the pasta together and pack meals in the to-go boxes on Thursday nights.

"You feel good after doing something for the community," said Matt Amado, 15, a freshman at Crescenta Valley High School who has volunteered with his parents and two college-age sisters since the ministry began at St. James. "We do it," says his dad, Lynn, "because we have to feed the homeless," adding they see many of the same diners week after week.

"The best thing is the camaraderie," said St. James parishioner Patti Prata. "It's a wonderful ministry because we know we're doing good, and we all enjoy getting together. It's a way of having community."

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