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With a friendly smile and a warm handshake, Austin Mariasy greeted a woman in a wheelchair and the family members encircling her in a chilly, dark East Toledo parking lot Monday night.
PHOTO GALLERY: Toledo Labre helping hands
Each was clutching a cup of hot chocolate, a foil-wrapped dinner, and other goodies handed out by student volunteers traveling in two white school vans.
Were they keeping warm? Were they ready for Christmas? Austin, a junior at St. John’s Jesuit High School, peppered them with questions, listened as they spoke, and made a connection.
It was the 65th time the students and adult chaperones had made the Monday evening trip — first to a North Toledo neighborhood and then to the parking lot of Helping Hands of St. Louis — as part of the Toledo Labre Program.
For 65 Mondays in a row, boys from St. John’s and girls from St. Ursula Academy have come together in a simple act of faith: offering food and friendship to the hungry and homeless of the city.
“I love it so much,” Austin said of the Labre program, which was named for St. Benedict Joseph Labre, patron saint of the poor and homeless, and modeled after similar programs at Jesuit schools across the country.
He said he’s taken to heart advice from local homeless advocate Ken Leslie: when you’re feeling down, go out and do something for somebody else without expecting anything in return. It’s the best remedy, as those who volunteer for Labre quickly learn.
Emily Win, who got involved with Labre last year as a senior at St. Ursula, was home from college on Christmas break and decided to join the student crew as an alumna.
“At first, it’s kind [of] out of everyone’s comfort zone, but you learn to love it,” she said. “After you meet the people and learn their stories, you can’t help but love Labre.”
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Sam Edwards, a St. John’s senior, was among the students who visited Walsh Jesuit High School in Akron two years ago to find out what Labre was all about and see if the program might work in Toledo.
“I was pretty apprehensive originally,” Sam said. “You’re going out straight to where people live — not to a soup kitchen where you’re at a designated spot and everyone comes to you.”
Among the stops the Akron group made during his visit was under a city bridge where they met some men who lived there.
“One of the guys, it was his 50th birthday. He was with two buddies living in a tent,” Sam recalled. “What struck me was not, this is such a terrible situation. What struck me was, they’re people just like us. Getting to know the people is what makes the whole experience special. It’s not just giving out the food.”
The food is the ice breaker though.
Students meet each Monday afternoon at one of the two schools where they make sandwiches and hot chocolate, heat up soup, and divide warm casseroles into individual servings wrapped in foil. After the food is ready, they hold a brief prayer service.
Mark Dubielak, theology chairman at St. Ursula, reminds the volunteers to silence their phones and “be truly present” for what is to come.
“We consider this a three-hour prayer,” Phil Skeldon, Christian service director at St. John’s, tells the group.
“Some people don’t even want food. They want to be looked in the face, and they want to have a conversation.”
In East Toledo, people are waiting when the vans pull in. Besides the warm meal, there is an assortment of donated items to hand out — boxes of crackers, hats and scarves, toiletries, Christmas cookies, even a warm winter coat for a young man clad only in shorts and a hoodie.
Hannah Harms, a graduate student who joined her parents and brother on the Labre outing for the first time, apologetically told one man who hoped to get a scarf that a leopard-print was all that was left.
“That’s OK as long as it keeps my neck warm,” Keith Thompson replied. “Thank you.”
He and his wife, Julie, who live nearby, said they appreciate what the students do.
“There’s been some times we wouldn’t have any food if it wasn’t for them coming here,” Mrs. Thompson said. “They’re here every Monday. They come no matter what.”
By the end of the evening, the food and supplies are depleted. The students head back to St. John’s to reflect on the people they met, make note of any particular needs, and pray for each of them.
Mr. Skeldon said each of their intentions is followed by the last line of the Labre prayer: “St. Benedict Joseph Labre, poor in the eyes of men and women but rich in the eyes of God, pray for us. Amen.”
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-213-2134.