VANCOUVER – Once a year, visitors to St. Joseph Parish’s Marian Hall can get a haircut, try on a new pair of shoes and access housing, job and counseling services from over 75 providers around the region.
It’s all part of Project Homeless Connect, a daylong resource fair for the underserved and homeless. St. Joseph in Vancouver has hosted the event since 2013; this year’s event drew 285 people in need of help.
“It’s fulfilling our Catholic mission,” said David Lester, pastoral assistant for social justice concerns ministry at St. Joseph. “It’s a great way to use our buildings to answer the call that Jesus gives all of us to serve those on the margins.”
St. Joseph Parish in Vancouver has hosted Project Homeless Connect since 2013. The event brings social service providers together with people needing services such as housing, dental care, haircuts and more. Photo: Courtesy Council for the Homeless
Along with use of its facilities, the parish prepares meals for attendees, many of whom are homeless. This year, more than 30 adults from the parish and school volunteered, in addition to students from the parish school who served meals and collected bags of toiletries for guests.
The project is overseen by Council for the Homeless, a nonprofit organization that helps people connect with housing. It works with a local outreach ministry, Go Connect, to coordinate the event, which in turn partners with St. Joseph as the host site, according to Charlene Welch, the council’s development and community relations manager.
“We value the parishioners at St. Joseph,” said David Bilby of Go Connect. “Without them, we couldn’t do it the same way. They have an amazingly open heart.”
Carly Potsma, an eighth-grader at St. Joseph School in Vancouver, gets ready to serve lunch during Project Homeless Connect Jan. 25. Potsma and her classmates took lunch orders and provided table service for people attending the annual resource fair hosted by St. Joseph Parish. Photo: Courtesy St. Joseph School
Making their guests welcome
When guests arrived in the parish parking lot Jan. 25, they were greeted by volunteers who helped them find where they needed to go. “We have to make sure our guests feel welcome,” explained Jerry Herrera, an executive chef who coordinates meals for the event.
Marian Hall’s commercial kitchen is one thing that makes St. Joseph a suitable host for Project Homeless Connect, said Herrera, who was facilities manager when the parish began hosting the event.
This year, Herrera and his team of about 20 kitchen volunteers prepared 450 servings of soup, lasagna, chicken, mashed potatoes and dessert. About 90 percent of the food was donated by parishioners, he said.
“We are sensitive to treating our guests like how we want to be treated,” so disposable dishes aren’t used, Herrera said.
And they recruited eighth-grade students from St. Joseph School to take orders and serve the guests, which Herrera said gives the meal a dignified feel.
“Nobody’s ever served us before,” he heard many of the lunch guests say.
The participation of St. Joseph School is key to the event, according to Herrera.
The whole school community was involved, said Mary Ellen LaRose, the school’s principal — from parents who volunteered to greet guests and work in the kitchen, to younger students who collected socks and toiletry items.
Sixth-graders Joey DiPrima (holding bag) and Oliver Dortmund, along with their classmates at St. Joseph School in Vancouver, prepared bags of toiletries, snacks and supplies for 285 people who attended Project Homeless Connect. The annual resource fair for the homeless was hosted Jan. 25 by St. Joseph Parish. Photo: Courtesy St. Joseph School
“This is one way our students live out their Catholic value of service to others,” LaRose said. “It’s extremely important to do our part to reach out to the underserved in the community.”
Eighth-grader Joey Angelo, one of the 40 students who helped, said he enjoyed serving about 50 people during his shift in the lunchroom, but he also felt humbled by the experience.
“I almost felt I was getting over-respected,” he said. “Everyone was so thankful. That was really awesome.”
Helping out with the event was important, he said, because “this is what God sent us to do, to help those who are less fortunate than us.”
Kristi Dunlap, who has four kids attending the school, said she is glad that even her kindergartener could be involved by collecting needed toiletries. “They have the realization that somebody might need something as basic as a toothbrush,” said Dunlap, who volunteered in the kitchen and dining hall.
Older students realized they may be taking for granted things like a roof over their heads and a supportive family. Serving at the event, said eighth-grader Caroline Hansen, “showed me I should appreciate these things more.”
Herrera, who supervised the meal service, said he could tell it was a learning experience for the kids.
“It really opens their eyes to the needy of our community,” he said. “What a blessing that we’re able to provide the facilities and the volunteers.”