By Georgiana Francisco and Ken Downey Jr. | Correspondents
Hundreds from across the Diocese joined together Jan. 16 for a day of service projects in memory of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
From those in St. Mary of the Lakes School and Parish, Medford, preparing food for the hungry to the Lawrenceville-based Center for FaithJustice teaming up with Mercer County middle-schoolers and the youth group in St. Thomas More Parish, Manalapan, creating personal hygiene kits, the faithful were busy on the national holiday set aside to honor the civil rights leader.
Photo Gallery: Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service in Lawrenceville
Photo Gallery: Hundreds in Medford make sandwiches for less fortunate
In Burlington County, more than 200 students, parents and parishioners joined together in the St. Mary of the Lakes School auditorium bright and early to make and deliver more than 2,500 sandwiches and snack bags to feed the hungry and homeless.
With almost military precision, students, staff and ministries from the parish as well as Cub Scouts local Pack 108, members of the Rancocas Valley High School Christian Athletes Club and Shawnee High School National Honor Society worked together to make sandwiches and combine food goods for snack bags, which were hand-decorated with stickers, ribbons and quotes from Dr. King.
“The idea was to hold a parish-wide event that would bring together our youth, parents and parishioners to honor Martin Luther King and his legacy of peaceful co-existence and helping people,” said Linda Xerri, youth minister in St. Mary of the Lakes Parish and coordinator of the event.
“He [Dr. King] said in 1957 that his most persistent question at that time was, ‘What are you doing for others?’ That question still persists today, 50 years later. So that’s why we are here. We are doing for others – we are being the hands and feet of Christ for others,” Xerri said.
The group delivered 200 snack bags, with items donated by the Campbell Soup Company, to Sacred Heart School students in Camden, 300 lunch bags for St. John’s Hospice in Philadelphia, as well as to Angel of God Community Outreach in Pitman, Cathedral Kitchen and Joseph House in Camden, Chosen Ministries, Project Home, and New Jerusalem in Philadelphia, Christian Caring Center in Pemberton/Browns Mills and Beacon of Hope Church in Mount Holly.
Edward Alfaro, of the New Jersey Boy Scouts Pack 108, said he wanted to participate because “when you are able to help others, it feels good. Even though we can’t see the people who will receive this food, it’s nice to know in your heart that you did something to help someone else.”
That sentiment was shared in Mercer County, where Gary Maccaroni, pastoral associate in St. Ann Parish, Lawrenceville, gathered with the Center for FaithJustice, 74 middle school students and 12 parents – the majority from St. James Parish, Pennington, and St. Ann Parish – in St. Ann Church for a day of visiting assisted-living homes and food banks.
Though many of the students were also earning community service hours for Confirmation, Maccaroni said the day of service goes beyond fulfilling religious education class requirements.
“It doesn’t matter what the quantity of hours that the students get for their Confirmation, but what they get out of their hours,” he said. “We want the kids to enjoy giving back, and maybe even realize this was the path they were meant to go down. Maybe one of our students realizes this could be a passion of theirs.”
Before breaking into groups and heading off to 14 sites, the students were greeted with a prayer service conducted by Tara Hank, Center for FaithJustice executive associate.
“Today I challenge you to look for the face of Jesus in every person you meet and every task that you do,” Hank said, speaking of the work the civil rights leader did in his daily life and how he accomplished his goals through the works of the Gospel. “Learn people’s names and see beyond the differences that you see in yourselves and them.”
Rooted in Catholic tradition, the Lawrenceville-based Center for FaithJustice works to foster economic, social and political justice with its programs geared toward youth and young adults. In addition to earning service hours for Confirmation, those who met at St. Ann Church were all looking to take part in the Center for FaithJustice’s “ServiceworX” program – projects geared toward middle- schoolers.
As the students broke into groups to travel to service project sites including HomeFront food pantry, Lawrenceville; One Simple Wish, the Ewing-based nonprofit that helps grant wishes for foster children and struggling families; and Atrium Senior Living of Princeton, Maccaroni took a group of four boys to Visitation Home, Hamilton, a nonprofit, Catholic community open to all faiths for adults with developmental disabilities.
Phyllis Fell, Visitation Home day program manager, greeted the group with open arms upon their arrival. The Center for FaithJustice has been partnering with Visitation Home on service projects for around five years.
“We get so excited when the Center for FaithJustice comes,” she said. “When they come in and visit with us, they’re kind of like old friends. Our individuals know them, and they bring a fresh energy and love, and oftentimes, a passion.
“We are very grateful for the partnership with the Center for FaithJustice,” she added. “God brings them together, and even though they are only here for the day, our individuals get the freshness, fun and friendships. It’s just really cool.”
The 24 individuals who were in attendance at Visitation Home when the youth arrived lit up at the immediate sight of the group and introduced themselves to the boys. The youngsters responded with smiles and helped the residents with an arts and crafts project.
“It really feels great to get involved,” said 12-year-old Christopher Casole of St. Ann Parish. “We’re doing this for community service, and it feels good.”
The day of service wasn’t just about feeling good; it was about looking good, too.
In St. Thomas More Parish, Manalapan, members of the youth group, Teen BLAST, created personal hygiene kits consisting of 25 toiletry items for those in need. The toiletries were donated by youth group families and the community, and some were purchased by the parish.
The kits will benefit families who rely on the Samaritan Center Food Pantry, which is located in Manalapan but also serves Englishtown, Marlboro and Millstone, as well as foster care children and victims of domestic violence.
Teen BLAST member Veronica Baker said the project made her feel grateful for all she has in her life.
“The day of service helped me to realize the things we take for granted – like shampoo, toothpaste and soap – some people don't have in their homes,” she said. “It was a small act, but I hope it made a big impact on people's lives.”
Fellow member Kyrie Gumina agreed.
“I am really grateful that I had the chance to participate in this event because it is an experience that I will never forget,” she said. “It felt so good knowing that I was helping people that did not have the basic necessities that we take for granted every day. After being involved in this service activity, I realize how fortunate I am and how such a simple gesture can make such a significant difference for so many.”
Deacon Matthew Nicosia, parish youth group coordinator, said the day of service is an example of how the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy continue to impact today’s youth.
“Dr. King stood for so much more than his obvious connection to the civil rights movement,” Deacon Nicosia said. “He stood for love, compassion and humility in service to our fellow man. These virtues mirror the social teaching of the Church.
“I think young people today feel empowered by performing service activities based on the ideals of this great leader,” he continued. “It is important events such as this that will produce the next generation of great leaders.”
That sentiment was echoed by the young people who took part in service projects across the Diocese.
Shawnee High School senior Brianna Hartman, a member of St. Mary of the Lakes’ youth group, YES (Youth Energized in the Spirit), said the civil rights leader teaches “that if we don’t agree with someone, we can react in a non-violent way. He wanted us to give back to those who had less and to do things that have a positive impact on everyone.”
Camden Catholic Sophomore Gabriella Giegerich, who helped pack sandwiches and snack bags at St. Mary of the Lakes School, agreed.
“We’re helping so many people today,” she said. “I think Martin Luther King would be amazed at the number of bags we made. And besides, it’s fun!”