by Moira Cullings
OVERLAND PARK — When shoppers arrive at Hy-Vee on 95th and Antioch here on a typical Saturday afternoon, Paul Monahan greets them with a smile.
Handing them a slip of paper, he adds a simple request: “We’d love if you could help us out. We’re gathering items for Catholic Charities.”
The responses he receives are humbling.
“A lot of times,” said Monahan, “some of the people will say, ‘I really want to give to you guys because you helped me out before I was able to take care of myself.’
“I’ve heard lots of stories about that.”
The Holy Trinity, Lenexa, parishioner has volunteered at Hy-Vee’s food drive for Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas for the past six years. He’s been a store captain for three.
The reason for his dedication is simple.
“I just want to help out because there’s a lot of people out there who need the help,” he said. “It’s just so rewarding.”
‘He makes you want to give’
Monahan began volunteering at the Hy-Vee food drive in 2015 after hearing about it from a friend.
“I was really interested in it because I’ve always wanted to start paying it forward and giving back,” he said.
After retiring last August, it seemed like the perfect time to act on that desire — and the food drive made it easy.
Held one Saturday a month, the Hy-Vee drive is one of many in northeast Kansas that exists to stock Catholic Charities’ food pantries for the hungry.
Monahan started as a regular volunteer, and although he didn’t realize it at the time, the store captain was slowly preparing him to take over his leadership role.
Monahan learned the ins and outs of the food drive until the captain relinquished his duties in 2018, and Monahan was asked to take over.
Quite simply, said Monahan, he had no reason to say no.
“I wanted to help out,” he said. “It worked out for the best. I really enjoy doing what we do.”
Monahan’s duties include picking up the Catholic Charities van, setting up outside the store, handing out slips to shoppers with a list of most-needed items, packing up the van at the end of the day and delivering the contributions to Catholic Charities.
Although he won’t admit to doing anything special, volunteers like Denise Swickard said Monahan’s leadership makes a difference.
“Paul makes it fun for the team,” said Swickard, who works the afternoon shift. “He motivates us, is so kind and so generous.”
“He has such a conscious commitment to serve every month, to give up his Saturday,” she added. “It’s an all-day event for him.”
Swickard, a parishioner at St. Michael the Archangel in Leawood, said Monahan’s friendly demeanor motivates shoppers to participate in the drive.
“He assures people that [their donation] is going to help somebody,” she said. “He’s so easy to talk to. I think that’s why when he hands out a slip, somebody will come back with a big bag of food.
“He makes you want to give.”
‘We didn’t close our doors’
Catholic Charities wouldn’t operate without its army of volunteers, who became more valuable than ever this past year.
“We typically on a monthly basis would have anywhere from 1,700 to 1,800 volunteers a month that volunteer at Catholic Charities,” said Camille Pickhinke, director of community engagement.
“And then, overnight, that number went down to about 300 [because of COVID],” she continued, “because the majority of our volunteers are those who were of the vulnerable age and/or had underlying health conditions themselves.”
Now, the organization is up to around 900 regulars. Pickhinke stressed the importance of every one of them.
“Volunteers are the lifeblood of our agency,” she said. “We could not do the work without them.
“I think we all became more grateful for the work our volunteers do day in and day out.”
Volunteers are particularly pertinent to Catholic Charities’ eight food pantries in northeast Kansas.
They also help operate the mobile resource bus that visits rural communities, as well as the Summer Food Program, which is critical to feeding children suffering from food insecurity while they’re out of school.
Although the need tends to rise in the summer while donations decrease, Pickhinke is hopeful that won’t be the case this year.
Since COVID-19 began, Catholic Charities has witnessed the generous spirit of northeast Kansans, and it hasn’t let up so far.
“We didn’t close our doors,” said Pickhinke, “and I think that’s why we’ve continued to receive an outpouring of support from the community to feed the need.”
‘Something out there for everybody’
That support isn’t lacking at Hy-Vee in Overland Park.
And when generous shoppers decide to add some items to their shopping list to help the hungry, Swickard can assure them their donations matter.
She volunteered at a Catholic Charities food pantry for five years before shifting gears to the food drives over the past three.
Swickard knows firsthand the impact grocery store and parish food drives have on the hungry — who she said come from a variety of circumstances with a variety of needs.
“You have to think about living situations,” she said. “Do they have a working stove? Do they have a refrigerator? Not everybody who comes walking into the food pantry has a fully functioning kitchen.
“Sometimes people are homeless. They’ve been on foot for a week.”
Food donations of all kinds can have a life-changing impact on these people, added Swickard.
For Monahan, witnessing the generosity of the community, especially this past year, has been powerful.
“We typically get about 200 bags in the van by the end of the day,” he said. “We’ve had a couple drives recently that have been over 300.”
He’s also gratified by the lessons he’s learned along the way.
“Early on,” he said, “I would see a person walking into the store, and I would be hesitant to even ask them to help because they would look a little despondent.
“But you can’t [judge] a book by its cover. The people you think would never even want to help, they’ll come back out with a whole bag of food.”
Those moments, he said, are special.
“It’s amazing when you hand someone a slip and they say, ‘I’ll be right back out,’” said Monahan. “Twenty minutes later, they come out with one plastic bag in their hand, and they’ll have a whole grocery cart full of food.
“They’ll say, ‘This is yours,’ and they’ll walk off with just the one bag of food.”
Monahan and Swickard are grateful for the generosity they witness one Saturday a month. They hope more people will feel inspired to get involved.
“I think sometimes people hold back from volunteering because they feel like they’re going to get overcommitted,” said Swickard.
“But I’m not overcommitted,” she continued. “And if I wanted to do this in a less frequent schedule, I could do that.
“Don’t be afraid, because there’s something out there for everybody. No matter how much of your time you can give, when we all do it together, it makes a big difference.”
To learn more about how you can help, visit the website at: catholiccharitiesks.org.
How to help
To donate, ask your parish if it has an upcoming food drive, look for Catholic Charities at your local Hy-Vee (scheduled Saturdays in the Kansas City metro only) or contact Catholic Charities by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.