Youth groups deliver cold weather care to Topeka’s homeless

Ciara Sloan, a member of Mother Teresa of Calcutta Parish’s youth group, ties a bag of warm weather items to a tree in an area where Topeka’s homeless are known to frequent. Leaven photo by Marc Anderson
Ciara Sloan, a member of Mother Teresa of Calcutta Parish’s youth group, ties a bag of warm weather items to a tree in an area where Topeka’s homeless are known to frequent. Leaven photo by Marc Anderson.

By Marc and Julie Anderson
mjanderson@theleaven.org

TOPEKA — Sometimes all it takes is a good idea — and Facebook.

That’s all it took, anyway, to inspire one of the latest service projects of the youth groups of Most Pure Heart of Mary Parish and Mother Teresa Parish in Topeka.

Carol Ondracek, a member of Most Pure Heart of Mary Parish, saw a Facebook post about volunteers in Omaha, Nebraska, hanging scarves on trees and statues in areas where the homeless were known to frequent. She said something to her husband Dan, who serves as a deacon at the parish, and suggested they should do it in Topeka.

That’s all he needed to hear.

Deacon Ondracek reached out to Brad Sloan and Tim and Nancy Ruoff, all members of Mother Teresa Parish. Tim Ruoff and Sloan are both currently in formation for the permanent diaconate; Nancy Ruoff serves as the junior and senior high youth ministry leader at the parish.

And Sloan’s day job involves working with the homeless as a detox program manager for Valeo Behavioral Health Care. He is also a member of the Capital City Outreach team, a collaboration of social service agencies and the Topeka Police Department, aimed at reducing homelessness.

“The Catholic world is a small one,” said Deacon Ondracek. Once the four had agreed on the project, the idea just grew, mostly by word-of-mouth.

Both parishes donated toiletries and other items as well as 75 hats, all knitted by hand. Somewhere along the line, Deacon Ondracek and his wife cleaned out a storage room at their house, finding an abundance of material left over from some of Carol’s sewing projects.

The material, most of which was fleece, was quickly donated to the cause, and others joined in the effort. Most Pure Heart of Mary eighth-grader Ava Lemon, for example, assisted the third-grade class during its retreat in cutting the material and tying it to make blankets and scarves.

“It was fun,” said Lemon, also a member of the youth group. “I like making the scarves, and I like helping the homeless.”

Other members of the two youth groups gathered donations and assisted in making the scarves and blankets. Then came the hard part — finding a way to deliver the donations to the homeless in such a way so as to allow the individuals to keep their dignity.

Sloan, whose work puts him in regular contact with other social service agencies as well as the homeless, thought the best bet would be to follow the idea Carol Ondracek had seen on Facebook and leave them in parks where the homeless are known to frequent or set up temporary camps.

On Dec. 13, nearly two dozen people, representing both youth groups, gathered in O’Connor Hall at Most Pure Heart of Mary Church to finish making the scarves and blankets as well as to bag the items in gallon storage bags, creating winter CARE packages of sorts. And like those in Omaha, Sloan added cards to the bags. The cards, some in English and some in Spanish, list social service agencies to whom those in need can turn for help, if they so choose.

The volunteers also wrote one word — Free — on the outside of the bags. That way, those in need would know it was theirs for the taking.

Still, there was one final task to be done. Deacon Ondracek invited Tim Ruoff to lead the group in prayer, after reminding the young volunteers about the Year of Mercy and how the service project represented one of the corporal works of mercy Pope Francis was calling for in the jubilee year — clothing the naked.

Sloan then led the group along a leg of the city’s Shunga Trail (a nearly eight-mile-long pedestrian and bike trail running through the center of the city) as well as three public parks in the downtown area, showing them places where the homeless have set up tents or temporary living quarters.

The youth groups hung the packages from trees with clothespins, left them on the branches of other trees, placed them on bridge railings, playground equipment and park benches — all under Sloan’s guidance. He had earlier instructed the groups that they would need to take care to distribute the packages so as to avoid an overconcentration in any particular location.

Sloan said he’d go by a day or so later to determine how many packages had been picked up by those in need, but he knew they would be appreciated. In Topeka, approximately 300 to 400 people are considered homeless, and, on any given night, around 40 to 50 are known to sleep outside in tents or on park benches.

During the winter, Sloan said, the biggest worry about those he serves is their health and safety. When temperatures reach 40 degrees or below, it’s very easy to develop frostbite and hypothermia. So, he checks in on them every other day to see if they need medical attention.

Earlier, Deacon Ondracek provided the group a definition of mercy.

“Mercy is love that recognizes others’ suffering,” he said.

And it seems as if the youth group members are learning how to recognize the suffering within the community.

“This is going to help them a lot, especially in cold weather,” said Tanner Becker, another eighth-grader from Most Pure Heart of Mary School. “We want to help the homeless and make sure their needs are met.”

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