Toledo Labre Project reaches out to neighbors in need

Nicki Gorny - The Blade, Toledo, Ohio (TNS)

There’s a difference between talking the talk and walking the walk.

At the Toledo Labre Project, the emphasis is placed equally on both.

On a recent drizzly fall evening, a handful of volunteers donned raincoats, loaded up a couple of vans and drove to a neighborhood in the Old South End, windshield wipers running all the way.

A handful of neighbors were waiting for them near the intersection of two residential streets, where they knew the vans would park. Others stepped outside when they saw the vans pull up and the handful of young men and women pile out, just as they do every Wednesday — no matter if it’s a holiday, if school’s in session, or if it’s the cold and dreary sort of day that practically ensures any conversations will be quick.

“Chili mac or tuna noodle casserole?”

“Ham and cheese or peanut butter and jelly?”

“Peanut butter or chocolate chip?”

And then, more importantly, a question about someone’s mother, who hadn’t come out herself to pick up a single serving of a hot casserole, a sandwich, a bag of chips and a cookie. A comment on a costume someone was wearing for Halloween, which at that point was just a few days away. A good-natured ribbing about a rival sports team.

“The food is the vehicle for the relationship,” Jennifer Southerton said.

Ms. Southerton is the campus minister at Lourdes University, whose students participate in the Toledo Labre Project on Wednesdays. St. John’s Jesuit High School and St. Ursula Academy handle Mondays, and medical students at the University of Toledo participate, too.

The minister’s words are a familiar refrain around the project, which exists in various forms in several cities and is named after Saint Benedict Joseph Labre. It’s a way to reach out with neighbors, Ms. Southerton said. They distribute meals to families who might need them at each of their stops in a night, but they’re more interested in the relationships that develop week after week.

Erin Sasala, 20, has been participating since November, 2015, when she was a student at Notre Dame Academy. She said the draw for her is the interactions.

“You hear about the poor as a big group, but at Labre you individualize each person,” she said. “You go up to them and you shake their hand and introduce yourself.”

She’s one of a handful of steady volunteers, but Ms. Southerton said they see participation from many groups and individuals on campus throughout the year.

They gather in the San Damiano Campus Ministry House about 4 p.m. Wednesdays to begin packing the casseroles that they stock all year. When the 80 or so meals they prepare on a given night are ready, they hop in vans and head into the neighborhoods, where volunteers said they often either know or recognize many of the neighbors who line up at the trunk of their vans. In nicer weather, they’ll hang out to chat with the adults and play with the children.

If they don’t know a name, they’ll ask. When they return to the campus ministry house, they wrap up their evening by praying for each person individually.

Nicki Gorny

The Blade, Toledo, Ohio (TNS)

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