By Carolyn Kaberline
When Father Arul Carasala of Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in Seneca asked Margie Shinn if she wanted a job, she said she really had enough jobs already.
“But after I heard about it, I said I could do it,” said Shinn, who had volunteered for various parish duties in the past. That new job was becoming the coordinator of the summer free lunch program, offered by Catholic Charities in collaboration with Harvesters.
During the first two weeks of the program an average of 30 youngsters a day took advantage of the lunches distributed in the town’s city park.
“There’s a good shelter house there, and it’s near a play area,” Shinn said. “The kids can get there by themselves. The parish is also nearby, and there’s a public school across the street.”
The success of the program in Seneca is being multiplied across the archdiocese as the first two weeks of the program saw just under a thousand meals distributed at 11 different sites: Topeka, Sabetha, Goff, Wetmore, St. Marys, Rossville, Marysville (two sites), Seneca, Osawatomie and Olathe.
The food is furnished by Harvesters to Catholic Charities; it is then provided by volunteers to youth from one to 18 years of age on one or more days each week, with most distributed as lunches.
“Osawatomie already had a lunch program in place, so they are providing breakfasts there,” said Ernie Boehner, director of outreach services for Catholic Charities. “We didn’t want to duplicate services.”
Boehner said the summer lunch program began last spring when Harvesters approached Catholic Charities about providing food for children — especially those from families with low incomes — over the months when school is not in session.
“The response from Ken Williams, Catholic Charities CEO, was ‘Absolutely!’” said Boehner, noting that the program is one that is definitely needed. Kansas currently ranks 50th out of 50 states in providing food for low-income children over the summer. This program may be the first step in changing those statistics — at least in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.
Marie Apel, program coordinator at Most Pure Heart of Mary in Topeka, said that three parishes in Topeka share responsibility for the lunches there: Most Pure Heart of Mary parishioners offer the program on Tuesdays and Thursdays; Christ the King, on Mondays and Wednesdays; and Mater Dei finishes up the week on Friday.
“While funding for the program comes from Catholic Charities and Harvesters, the parishes buy hand sanitizers, containers for hand washing, and cloths for wiping the tables,” Apel said. “Lunches include crackers, fruit cups, cheese and meat sticks, and trail mix — along with shelf stable milk — and meet federal guidelines. If there is something a youngster doesn’t like or want, he or she can place it on the sharing table; those that are still hungry can take items from the sharing table.”
Although aimed primarily at children from low-income families, Apel said no sign up or reporting of income levels is needed for children to be served.
The Topeka program is offered in Gage Park at tables near the play area and across from the swimming pool. While numbers have not been as large in Topeka, Apel still considers the program a success.
“If we’ve alleviated hunger for even one child, that’s one child that won’t be hungry for that day. There are mixed feelings: You want larger numbers so volunteers feel they’ve done well, but yet you don’t want larger numbers because that denotes more hunger in the community.”
Instead of parish volunteers, the lunch program in Marysville relies on help from members of the Retired Seniors Volunteer Program (RSVP) said April Todd, program coordinator.
“It’s a great way to bridge the generational gap,” she said, adding that the Pony Express Partnership for Children oversees the Marysville program.
“Father Jim [Shaughnessy, pastor of St. Gregory Parish in Marysville] brought word of the program to the health department who turned it over to us because of our work with children,” she said, noting that the entire town has been supportive. “When we needed a new refrigerator, two sorority groups and the bank quickly raised the $700 needed.”
“We’re excited to be doing this,” she added. “It’s going really well. We will keep on doing what we’re doing.”
So far, 45 to 50 youngsters have been served each day.
Although most people would consider Johnson County as an area with little poverty, Michelle Santoyo, coordinator for St. Paul, Olathe, said the parish has been serving an average of 19 youth per day.
“We’re hoping to grow bigger,” she added. “We’re expecting more kids in July when summer school is out. We pray for that every day. It’s sad there is a poverty problem in Johnson County, but a lot of kids need help. This is a wonderful program for families to interact with each other, and it’s a solution to help parents.”
Santoyo knows what it can be like for some youngsters during the summer, which is one of the reasons she volunteered for the program.
“I do work for the church office, and when Father Michael [Hermes, pastor of St. Paul] asked me to take over, I was glad to do this,” she said. “I was often in that state when I was a youngster. I wanted to give back to the kids and the community.”
Like the other parishes, Santoyo said getting volunteers to oversee the program has not been a problem.
“We just need five,” she said, “and often have to turn some away. We’ve had a good response from the community. We have a lot of teenagers trying to get service hours.”
Regardless of the age of the volunteers, though, she said they have all been rewarded for their efforts.
“Just seeing kids receiving lunches,” she said, “and seeing smiles on their faces and hearing the thank yous they give is rewarding.”