Volunteers stuff backpacks with winter gear to aid the homeless
50 turn out to help at Long Valley church
By Meghan Van Dyk
WASHINGTON TWP. — Instead of exchanging gifts with her family this year, Cheryl Kennedy donated a backpack filled with cold weather necessities in their names to Operation Chillout.
“There are people in need right in our backyards,” the township resident said. “It’s important to me to not go crazy shopping and decorating when I have the opportunity to help someone in a moment they can’t help themselves.”
Kennedy, her husband, John, and their two children were among the 50 volunteers Wednesday at St. Luke’s Parish who helped pack 250 backpacks and duffel bags that will be distributed this weekend to homeless people throughout northern New Jersey.
St. Luke Parish Deacon Ray Chimelski founded Operation Chillout in 2000, when he and two others delivered knapsacks to homeless Vietnam veterans living under a railroad trestle in Dover.
Nine years later, it has expanded to include the efforts of several hundred volunteers who lend a hand in distributing the bags to food pantries, shelters, parks and abandoned buildings in Dover, Newton, Morristown, Paterson, Passaic, Hackensack and Newark.
“We try to serve those who fall through the cracks,” Chimelski said. “Most of the homeless are no different than you or me — they are veterans, the chronically ill or people who lost their jobs and had no other means of connecting with loved ones. For most of them, they just need some time to get up on their feet.”
With this year’s recession, it has been especially tough on the homeless because shelters and soup kitchens are finding it difficult to keep up with the demand, he said.
That’s where Operation Chillout steps in.
Through local churches, volunteers donate the backpacks and duffel bags already stuffed with items like warm socks, long underwear, a hooded sweatshirt, cap, scarf, gloves and toiletries such as shampoo, toothpaste and a toothbrush. The bags also contain information about local resources.
Township residents Donna and Bob Almquist spent $75, and several hours handpicking the items to go into the duffel bag they packed.
“We prepared it as if it were a present for someone in our family,” Almquist said. “I looked for the best things I could find. Whomever gets it deserves the best, like gloves that are warm, serviceable and also good-looking.”
Mary Ann Pease of Washington Township said her experience helping out last year has made her think twice whenever she walks out into the cold and shivers.
“Homelessness is a major issue we need to pay attention to. We all need to be loved, to be recognized,” Pease said. “We might not be solving the problem, but perhaps we are offering hope or providing comfort during a transition period.”
Mendham resident Tanya Rentsch has struck up conversations with people carrying Operation Chillout backpacks in Morristown and remembers meeting one man whose friend calls him “Turtle” because he takes the bag everywhere he goes.
“Doing this every year, you make connections with people,” said Rentsch, who is in her fourth year volunteering. “It’s hard not to feel empathy with people who’ve lost everything and live in cardboard boxes along the Passaic River. To see the look on their faces when we smile at them, talk to them and give them things that seem so commonplace to us — I can’t describe it.”
Operation Chillout also provides bottled water to the homeless in the summer, and year round, conducts “street sweeps” in impoverished areas to handout hot coffee and sandwiches in addition to helping identify and link veterans with benefits they might not have known they are eligible to receive.
“I never expected to do all this,” Chimelski said. “But I have gotten to know so many great people, and I can’t imagine them not being a part of my life.”