Operation Chillout Brings Help to Homeless Across Northern New Jersey
By MaryLynn Schiavi
What began as a one time gesture of good will has grown into an organization that has helped thousands of homeless in New Jersey over the last 10 years by offering them a backpack filled with some of the necessities for daily life that include toothpaste, shampoo, warm gloves, a hat, and other items that most take for granted.
More than 600 of these backpacks will be distributed by Operation Chillout beginning Dec. 17 throughout nine counties in New Jersey which include: Morris, Warren, Somerset, Hunterdon, Bergen, Newark, Union, Passaic and Sussex.
Operation Chillout, established by Long Valley resident Deacon Ray Chimileski of St. Luke’s Church, said there are currently an estimated 28,000 to 35,000 homeless in New Jersey, 7,500 of them are veterans.
It was an article in the Star Ledger that prompted Chimileski late in 2000 to seek out three homeless veterans who were living under a railroad tressle in Dover. When he and his two friends located the men and began talking to them, the men told them what they needed most.
“One man said, what I could really use is a knapsack. I had one in the army and it was great. I had everything I needed and it was easy to carry around,” said Chimileski. So he and his friends returned on Dec. 21, 2000 with three backpacks filled to the brim with useful items.
Chimileski said from that point on people approached him who wanted to help out. And so Operation Chillout was born.
“For me it was simple, one person, one gift,” said Chimileski.
“For many of us, we work for a living and we take care of our own. Everyone wants to help, but it’s easy for people to get overwhelmed when they hear the numbers and the level of need. So I wanted to make it easy for each person to give something,” said Chimileski.
He said that many people have said to him that they don’t like giving money because they don’t know how it is being used–they would rather fill a backpack with items. And he said many participate as a family.
“And it’s not like people just throw items into the backpack, I’ve heard people tell me that their family would get into debates over what color cap or gloves to include,” said Chimileski.
“It becomes a very personal experience for those who participate. Adults and children really enjoy the process,” he said.
Operation Chillout receives help from seven organizations including the Youth Ministry led by Wayne Shurts at the Zion Lutheran Church in Long Valley.
While Operation Chillout runs throughout the year, the major drive for backpacks is in November and early December. Then they are distributed beginning mid-December through January.
During the summer months, Operation Chillout assists the homeless in other ways. Last summer the organization distributed 28,000 bottles of water throughout the nine counties.
With the current economic downturn, there is a growing number of homeless. “We are seeing younger Veterans than we’ve ever seen who are homeless–men in their early 20’s who have lost jobs, or are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Chimileski.
Operation Chillout is in the process of becoming a non-profit organization recognized by the state and the federal government so that it will be able to apply for grants and serve more homeless in the state.
“Our motto is–no boundaries, no borders–which is our logo. Which means we are committed to helping a homeless person no matter where they may be,” said Chimileski.
Operation Chillout is accepting donations of backpacks filled with goods until Dec. 16. They can be dropped off at the office of St. Luke’s Church, 265 West Mill Road. The Church’s office number is 908-876-3515. For more information about the organization and what to include in the backpacks, visit: www.operationchillout.org.
Chimileski said most of the backpacks will be distributed on December 21, which is the anniversary of the first time he and his friends offered backpacks to the homeless men in Dover.
Chimileski said, “Interestingly enough, December 21 is the Winter Solstice. It’s the longest day of darkness in the Northern Hemisphere. But each day afterward the days become brighter. The date has served as a metaphor for what we’re trying to do.”