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Followers of a Man Who built homes, fed the hungry, healed the sick and prayed for unity spent the day united in helping people who have no home.
It was Jefferson City’s eighth annual Project Homeless Connect, a massive, interchurch, interagency effort to provide wide-ranging assistance in one place.
“The Body of Christ! That’s who we’re dealing with! That’s why we do this!” said Carolyn Saucier, a member of Immaculate Conception Parish in Jefferson City.
The purpose of the all-day event on Sept. 30 was to help people who are homeless or nearly homeless overcome as many barriers to permanent housing as possible.
More than 60 sponsoring churches, faith- and community-based agencies, including Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri (CCCNMO), along with government entities and local businesses, cosponsored and participated in the event, held in the buildings of First United Methodist Church, First Baptist Church and First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the same block of East Capitol Avenue.
Local volunteers helped each participant find the services he or she needed the most.
The weather cooperated brilliantly.
How may we help you?
Representatives of numerous avenues of assistance set up booths and answered people’s questions in the gymnasium at First Christian Church.
Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri set out a smorgasbord of items for visitors to put together their own hygiene kit, containing only items they find useful or helpful.
“We have a variety of things they can choose from, and they can go over there, and they can take what they need and make their own care packages and are only getting what they actually need or use,” said Lori Stoll, Catholic Charities’ food programs coordinator.
Ms. Stoll based the concept on the way Catholic Charities’ client-choice Food Pantry in Jefferson City works.
“Seeing people come in and take what they need and what they can use and are familiar with, she created the concept for doing the same thing here,” said Ashley Wiskirchen, CCCNMO’s senior director of communications.
The response was phenomenal.
“Giving people choices is part of upholding their dignity,” said Ms. Stoll.
Students from Helias Catholic High School in Jefferson City, St. Martin School in St. Martins and other parishes and schools held dignity drives to collect the personal-care items.
Children from St. Francis Xavier School in Taos put together and decorated bags of hygiene products for the people to take.
Ms. Stoll also distributed information about CCCNMO’s wide range of services and programs, including the food pantry, financial stability services, and guidance through the process of obtaining and keeping a place to live.
She had gotten back into Jefferson City only a few hours before the event began, after attending a national conference of Catholic Charities affiliates.
“It’s amazing to spend time with people who are united in their commitment to see Jesus in every person that you encounter, then to come here and actually do it in such a noticeably impactful way,” she said.
“God brought them here”
Members and friends of Immaculate Conception Parish prepared and served over 300 hot meals for the event and provided dozens of home-baked cookies for dessert.
The meal consisted of smoked, pulled pork, mashed potatoes, and green beans.
The food came from the event’s sponsors.
Mrs. Saucier said the event was a great introduction to the need for services for people who are homeless.
“People are so willing,” said Mrs. Saucier. “We’ve had so many people come up to us in the past few days and say, ‘What can I do to help?’”
A group of seventh-graders from Immaculate Conception School gave up a day-off from school to help in the dining room and visit with the people who attended.
“We are basically feeding people who are homeless because they’re hungry and we want them to have a nice, good meal,” said seventh-grader Lexie Atkinson.
“We know that God brought them here for us to serve them,” she said.
The young volunteers, most of whom are preparing for the Sacrament of Confirmation, arrived at church at 7:30 a.m., went to 8 a.m. Mass together and received a special blessing from Father Matthew Flatley, the pastor.
“It was awesome,” Fr. Flatley. “The whole community gave them a blessing and we sang, ‘Sent Forth with God’s Blessings’ as they processed out with me. We’re so proud of all of them.”
After a quick breakfast of donuts and juice, they walked about 10 blocks to the site of the event.
Fellow I.C. parishioner Tom Fennessey, who was volunteering as a guide, observed the young people in action.
“They were involved, helpful, and most of all polite in assisting with providing drinks, food and clean-up in the lunch area,” he said.
Lexie said she was keenly aware of God’s presence throughout the event.
“I feel His energy,” she said.
A good start
The kitchen staff and seventh-graders gathered for prayer before the steady current of diners began arriving.
“Lord God, thank You for bringing us all here together today!” Mrs. Saucier prayed. “May we serve the men and women here and one another with kindness, graciousness, and realizing how sacred we all are in the Body of Christ.
“May all who share in this meal be blessed,” she prayed. “And let us remember who we are and Who God is as we reach out in kindness and hope to provide a wonderful meal to these men and women.”
I.C. parishioner Mary Beth Hoey said she had been looking for ways help people who are homeless but didn’t know where to begin.
When Mrs. Saucier invited Mrs. Hoey to help with the lunch, she jumped at the chance.
“It’s a very good way to start,” Mrs. Hoey stated. “I hope I find other opportunities, as well.”
Parishioner Natalie Daimler said volunteering is a good way to give back to the community.
“I’m not homeless and not in fear of becoming homeless, so I try to help those who are in need,” she stated.
She said it was impossible to miss God’s animating presence among all the people taking part in Project Homeless Connect.
“He’s here among all the people who keep coming in here to help,” she said.
“Do what we can”
The Rev. Karen Taylor, pastor of missions and discipleship for First United Methodist Church, touched base with the lunchroom volunteers before the event began.
First UMC maintains a vigorous outreach to people who are homeless.
“One of our wildly important goals is ending homelessness in Jefferson City,” said Rev. Taylor. “Which we know we won’t do by ourselves. But it’s one of the important things that we’re working on.”
She said Project Homeless Connect is a great example of people in the community uniting behind an important effort.
“Because they’re children of God,” she answered.
“Anybody deserves to be treated like a human being,” she stated. “And if there’s something we can do to help remove barriers to them getting off the street, we want to do what we can to help them out.”
She noted that many of the churches and organizations participating in the day’s events are members of the city’s Homeless Task Force, which helped organize the first Project Homeless Connect eight years ago.
The format was based on other similarly successful events in Columbia and other communities.
Member congregations also established a local Room at the Inn (RATI) winter overnight homeless shelter based on similar operations in Columbia, Mexico, Moberly and other communities.
“We just kind of dove in, in part because COVID shut down the Salvation Army shelter for a time,” said Rev. Taylor.
Also, since that shelter houses families, some people are not eligible to stay there.
“So, Room at the Inn here focuses on adults,” said Rev. Taylor. “If there’s any families with children, then we would refer them to the Salvation Army.”
Staffed by volunteers, RATI will be open each night, beginning in January, in the community room in the Catholic Charities Center.
Shortage of housing
St. Peter parishioner Mary Telthorst, who is now president of the parish’s conference of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, volunteers for Project Homeless Connect each year.
She’s always pleased to see so many agencies gathered in one place, united to take on homelessness.
She said the medical and dental services from local agencies are essential to people who are sick and uninsured.
“Things like vision screening or medical follow-up for high blood pressure are services you can’t get if you’re homeless with limited means and you don’t have insurance,” she said.
She noted that one of the biggest obstacles to people finding a home is the shortage of affordable housing.
“People are coming and saying I have a Section 8 voucher and can’t find anywhere to live,” she said.
Some are staying in local shelters because there are no openings, or landlords won’t return their calls.
“It’s just a vicious cycle,” she stated.
A lot of need
Diane Struemph, a member of St. Peter Parish in Jefferson City, helped answer questions and give out information about Building Community Bridges, for which she serves as secretary and food-pantry coordinator.
Earlier that day, she picked up food donations from local merchants and brought them to the event.
This included 15 cases of bananas from Aldi.
“Those are going over very well,” she noted.
Building Community Bridges is a nonprofit organization that helps local children and families in need.
It operates a food pantry twice a week and provides tutoring and an array of after-school activities for children.
Mrs. Struemph got involved in the organization in the aftermath of the 2019 tornado that ravaged parts of Jefferson City and Eldon.
“Being able to help the community is fulfilling — knowing that you’re helping people that don’t have money for food,” she said.
“There’s a lot of poverty, a lot of need,” she added.
For new mothers
Nearby, a husband and wife who are pregnant with twins laughed with joy while holding up one of the realistic models of a baby who has been developing for 12 weeks in the womb.
The models are an eye-catching draw to the services available from Jefferson City Birthright.
“We’re giving people information about the services we provide to new mothers and women who are pregnant,” said Mary Davis, a member of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Taos, who was helping to staff the Birthright table.
She said Project Homeless Connect is a great way for Birthright to network with other organizations and publicize the services and donated items they offer — including maternity clothes, baby clothes, diapers, wipes and other baby items.
The Birthright volunteers let the models on the table — showing a pre-born baby’s size and weight at 12, 16 and 24 weeks, either with light or dark skin — speak for themselves.
“That’s a replica, but when people see it and realize ‘that’s what growing inside of me,’ there’s never a question about it,” said Cathedral of St. Joseph parishioner Anne Rapp.
“You can talk until you’re blue in the face, but seeing is believing.”
“It changes everything”
Mrs. Telthorst said it was great to see members of neighboring church groups united in purpose and cooperating to do God’s work. Individual congregations can only do so much, but networking and putting people in touch with various faith- and community-based resources “goes a long way in helping somebody’s life,” she said.
Mrs. Saucier spoke of abundant avenues of continuing to help people who are homeless and in need: from volunteering to assist with Room at the Inn, to helping prepare and serve hot daily meals at the Salvation Army, to providing other services for people who are homeless and in need.
“People are looking for opportunities to do this kind of thing,” said Mrs. Saucier. “That’s why they’re here today.”
She said spending time with people who are in need of these services is an unforgettable encounter with Christ.
“It changes you,” she said. “It changes everything. You get to know their names. They’re your friends. You can’t pass them up when you see them.”
Keeping good company
The morning after Project Homeless Connect, Ms. Daimler wrote to God in her gratitude journal, “Thank You for this day and for giving me this chance to serve other people.”
Ms. Stoll, with Catholic Charities, said she gives thanks every day for being chosen to do this kind of work and have these kinds of experiences.
“We get to experience Jesus every minute!” she said.
Fr. Flatley said he hopes everyone who participated, especially the young people, came away understanding that the people they’re serving are worthy of their love and care.
“I hope it reminds us all that we’re one Body and that Jesus’s last plea before His crucifixion was to love each other the way that ‘I have loved you,’” Fr. Flatley stated.
“And it seems that Christ spent a lot of time with those on the margins!” the priest added. “He seemed to spend most of his time with sinners. I have a feeling that he might have preferred their company.”