‘God has his hands all over this ministry’
They come in cars, on bikes, in wheelchairs and on foot from homes, apartments, shelters and tents for the bi-monthly food ministry at St. Didacus parish in Sylmar.
On average, 75-100 families and individuals, including homeless men and women, show up early every other Saturday to get into line for the arrival of the 9 a.m. truck filled with fresh produce from MEND, the valley’s largest poverty-relief agency.
Before the food is distributed, parishioner Norma Gallegos, with her mother Socorro by her side, says a prayer out loud in front of the crowd encircling the truck driven from MEND’s facility in Pacoima by her father, Pablo.
“My parents were my first volunteers,” said Norma, who approached Msgr. Peter Amy, then pastor (now pastor emeritus), about setting up a food ministry at the parish after her friend, MEND co-founder Ed Rose, said he was thinking about having a satellite in Sylmar.
With the pastor’s blessing, Norma and a small team of parishioners started the food ministry in the summer of the “Great Jubilee of 2000.” Food, donated by groups such as Catholic Daughters, the St. Didacus men’s prayer group and local businesses, is collected and sorted into grocery bags and stored in two rooms of the old parish center in readiness for emergency needs. The bi-monthly Saturday distribution gives each recipient a bag of food as well as fresh produce transported from MEND, which recently included oranges, tomatoes, green beans, cauliflower, Swiss chard and strawberries.
“On distribution day, we’ve got it down to a science,” said Norma. The recipients and parish volunteers help unload the van and people are allowed to get into the distribution line after their names are called based on when they arrived, sometimes as early as 6 a.m.
“The need is constant,” says Norma, an Employment Development Department worker who often goes to St. Didacus on her lunch hour or after work to collect food for people who have come to the church office for assistance.
“I love my job with the state, helping people with job services, but this is my passion,” said Norma.
Parishioner Aurelia Valenzuela, taking the names of people lining up for food distribution recently at the parish center, said it feels good to be able to help the growing numbers of people who are having a hard time in the down economy. The two-year food ministry volunteer noticed several new people, including new homeless, in the Feb. 4 food distribution line.
“There’s a lot of people moving into the area because now families are doubling up in houses --- one family told me there are five families living in one home,” said Valenzuela.
Norma Moreno, a five-year volunteer, said she likes to give back to the food ministry which once helped her out. “She likes it because there are people who are needy just like she was,” said her 15-year-old son Jose, a three-year volunteer.
For his own part, he said, “I feel good going home that I help people, no matter who they are.”
The parish food ministry was quite active during the devastating 2008 Sylmar fire which destroyed many parishioners’ homes. Volunteers brought food to the emergency shelter set up at Sylmar High School just up the street, and also provided food and clothing to fire victims referred to services set up at the local recreation center. They regularly bring food to Sylmar’s cold weather shelter open from December through mid-March.
“Without programs like the food ministry, I hate to think what people would be doing,” said Barry, a recipient who came to St. Didacus for the first time Feb. 4 as he struggles to regain his financial footing after a job opportunity didn’t pan out as he had hoped.
“I’d go hungry if I couldn’t come here since I have no job and no money,” said Barbara. “It saved my life.”
“I’d be in bad shape if they didn’t have a system like this for people,” said Karl, a first-time visitor to the parish food ministry who has been on disability for five years due to a job injury. He commented on the fact that St. Didacus even had some meat --- hot dogs --- provided by a local donor.
“I think it’s good to note that there are a lot of people willing to donate,” said Norma Gallegos, who pointed out that the food ministry does not receive donations from government programs which often come with restrictive regulations regarding recipient eligibility and accessibility.
As she puts it: “All we have to do is ask for donations, whether it’s a small bag of canned food or cases of cereal. It always works out. God has his hands all over this ministry.”
For more information on the St. Didacus Food Ministry’s upcoming distribution Saturdays (Feb. 18 and March 3, 17 and 31), contact the parish office, (818) 367-6181.