Long Valley parishioners supply survival backpacks to homeless
By CECILE SAN AGUSTIN
LONG VALLEY – As the northern hemisphere marked the winter solstice at exactly 1:08 a.m. on Dec. 22, the homeless faced the longest night of the year. Winter heralded in and for the next three months, the homeless will face bitter-cold conditions, snowy wet weather and the uncertainty about surviving the harshness of Mother Nature.
Because of this reality, a group of 40 volunteers from St. Luke Parish here reached out Dec. 21 to more than 600 homeless men, women and children in Dover, Morristown, Paterson, Newark and Hackensack by supplying survival duffle bags and backpacks to endure the cold winter season. A caravan of 12 trucks, mini-vans and SUV’s were filled with these concerned volunteers including a St. Luke Parish van they’ve named the “Miracle on Wheels.”
Since 2000 “Operation Chill-Out,” a coalition to relieve the crisis of homelessness, has been going out to cities looking for homeless to provide a survival bag on the first day of winter.
According to Deacon Ray Chimileski, coordinator of the project at St. Luke’s, Operation Chill-Out started to help a group of Vietnam veterans living under a railroad trestle in Dover. That first year they gave out 50 backpacks, but soon through word of mouth from the veterans, the St. Luke’s group learned where more homeless people dwelled. Each year, the operation’s mission grows to other local communities. Now, Operation Chill-Out reaches out to areas all over northern New Jersey visiting alleyways, fields, abandoned buildings, soup kitchens, temporary shelters and parks.
Handing out the backpacks on Dec. 21 was actually coincidence, said Deacon Chimileski. “It has become a very symbolic day for us that in spite of it being the darkest night of the year, it shows the light of Christ can still shine,” he said.
Inside a survival backpack, donations of brand new items from various organizations can be found. These include winter gear such as a knit hat, gloves, scarves, long underwear and heavy socks and toiletries such as hand soap, lotion, soap, toothbrush and toothpaste.
Deacon Chimileski said, “We can see men carrying them from the year before. Often times, the backpacks are one of the only items they own.”
In addition to the winter weather gear and toiletries, Christmas cards, prayer cards and information about local resources can also be found along with gifts cards to fast food restaurants, phone cards and snacks. The phone cards have been especially helpful in connecting those on the streets with their families, according to the group.
According to the grassroots interfaith coalition, “Operation Chill-Out’s mission is to relieve the crisis of homelessness through promoting awareness of the multi-faceted nature of poverty and homelessness, advocating for sustainable housing solutions and programs serving the needs of homeless people and organizing for economic justice to address the challenges of impoverished communities.”
The faces of the homeless
When many people think of the homeless, addicted, hostile and mean are the images often times projected. The reality according to the volunteers is that most of these people are those with broken dreams – veterans coming home from war, women trying to create a home for their children, immigrants entering the United States for a better life.
The young and old of all races are found among the homeless and Deacon Chimileski said that almost 50 percent of the homeless people that the group comes across are Vietnam veterans.
In 2006 and this year, Deacon Chimileski recalls meeting “the largest group of women and children living on the streets.”
Mary Ann Peas, a parishioner and religious education teacher at St. Luke’s, said seeing women with their children was an overwhelming sight. “The most heart-wrenching experience was seeing a mother who had her baby in a carriage. The baby was crying and as a mother, my heart went out to her specifically as she tried to shelter her child,” said Peas.
The group is also finding more migrant and agriculture workers considering them the “new homeless.” Deacon Chimileski said, “A lot of them are now without work because the summer months are over and they are afraid to go home due to immigration issues.”
No matter the situation the homeless people are in, the group will never discriminate and they will provide a backpack to all they find shivering in the cold.
Showing care and hope
For Operation Chill-Out to become a success, help is needed in addition to the 40 volunteers who go out on the road. The annual campaign is supported by many individuals, civic organizations, church groups and corporations.
Young adults, teen-agers and children often volunteer by preparing backpacks and donating supplies as a way to do community service. Parents also bring children and teen-agers on the road as a lesson in social justice and compassion to the less fortunate.
Operation Chill-Out has also been an ecumenical mission with the help of Zion Lutheran Church here and the Long Valley Clergy Association.
Two Knights of Columbus Councils – 10419 and 6100 – also lent a hand to the cause along with St. Luke Parish’s Human Concerns Ministries. St. Jude’s Society Stitchers of Budd Lake also knitted 175 scarves to be supplied in the backpacks.
For those who go “out in the field,” Operation Chill-Out does training with volunteers to prepare them in dealing with the homeless on a one-to-one basis.
Roger Gottlieb, who was one of the founders of Operation Chill-Out with Deacon Chimileski seven years ago, considers this “his Christmas” in providing much needed help to the often forgotten this time of the year.
This was the first year volunteering with Operation Chill-Out for 16-year-old, Elizabeth Callahan, a peer minister at St. Luke’s. Her father, Bill, told her about it and she decided this was how she wanted to fulfill her service hours for her confirmation. “I feel that it’s our responsibility as young people given the chances that we have to reach out to other people who are in need especially if we have things we can give and share with other people,” she said.
A humbling and life-changing experience, the effort of Operation Chill-Out will continue year after year. Of course, the group hopes that one day there will be a time it does not have a mission to help the homeless but as long as there is a need, they will continue in their mission doing the best they can.
“Homelessness can touch just about anyone and we don’t know how these people got here today,” said Peas. “They could have just lost everything they had one day. I see their faces and I don’t know how they got there but all I know is that I just wish that more people could help and we can just relieve all of this suffering.”