By Jason Vietzke
For many years now, my grandfather [Dan Vietzke] has volunteered with an organization called Jesus Delivers [Jesus Refills, now] from his church that serves the homeless community in St. Paul, Minnesota. Every year around Easter this group gathers together to assemble Easter Baskets and then distributes them at the Dorothy Day Center. These baskets are not only sent to the Dorothy Day Center, but are delivered to other locations around the metro such as, battered women’s shelters and hospitals. For multiple years my family and I have been privileged to prepare the baskets and accompany the volunteers to the Dorothy Day Center. The purpose for this ministry is to help remind the homeless about one of the most important days of the church year. If we are successful, this reminder of their salvation will bring hope into their lives. To assure optimum results, we start the operation weeks before Easter.
Two weeks before Holy Thursday, we gather in the church to assemble the baskets. This process is set up like an assembly line. There is a large ring of tables with piles of assorted items ranging from, but not limited to, coloring books, stuffed animals, crayons, and candy. All these supplies, including the baskets, are provided by generous donations of either money or the items themselves. Both businesses and individuals contribute to these donations. For assembly, one person will start at one end of the ring and grab a basket. They will then continue around the ring and choose what sort of items to arrange inside. Each volunteer tries to select toys to create a theme that will appeal to either a boy or girl. After all the baskets have been complete, they are loaded into a trailer and are held until distribution day on Holy Thursday.
When the day has finally arrived and we meet at the Dorothy Day Center, we set up tables in the parking lot to place the Easter Baskets on. In addition to the baskets, a food truck owned by Jesus Delivers [Jesus Refills, now] that serves free lunch to the homeless, pulls into the parking lot and sets up shop. After we have all the Easter Baskets laid out on tables, we say a short prayer over the baskets and offer prayers for the people we will be serving that day. After seeing the activity in the parking lot, the word begins to travel and more and more homeless people start showing up.
Most of these people are extremely disheveled and it is disheartening to see the state these individuals live in. Almost everyone has dental issues consisting of either yellowed, blackened, or missing teeth. The atmosphere is thick with the smell of smoke, alcohol, and body odor. These people mill around and chat with each other before approaching us.
When they arrive at the tables, they tell us how many Easter baskets they want. They also specify how many girl or boy themed baskets they would like. The baskets are supposed to be for kids but since it is mainly adults, we hand them out to all who ask. However, it is not just baskets the people want. It is a common occurrence to have individuals approach and ask for trash bags to help carry their belongings. In addition to the baskets and lunch, Jesus Delivers [Jesus Refills, now] helps distribute clothing and blankets. When they receive their baskets, they are always extremely thankful and tell us what a wonderful job we do, This continues for three hours and the crowd of people is constantly being replenished by newcomers who receive calls from those who have already been gifted with baskets. This displays the close connection that the homeless have with each other.
Amazingly, the homeless are not just receiving the baskets, some pitch in to help the volunteers. My grandpa introduced us to one couple in particular named Peggy and John who enjoy helping out with serving meals at the food truck.
The meals that this food truck serves are served throughout the year, not just at Easter time. The volunteers who run the food truck also try to synchronize the meals with the current weather since the homeless are exposed to the elements almost constantly. So, during the summer they serve lighter meals, and during the winter and colder months, they serve hot meals along with coffee or hot chocolate.
After the truck runs out of food and we are done handing out the baskets, we clean up the tables and load everything back into the trailer. Even though we are cleaning up, the homeless do not leave right away. Some stay and help us put everything away. After the parking lot is clear, we drive home to our own lives.
Even though the distribution lasts only a few hours, I do not think I will ever forget the memories I have from this experience. It is so easy to forget the lives these people live while living in our own little worlds. I never thought that the homeless community was so united.