Empty bottles fulfill call to be stewards of earth, each other

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(Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)
Glenda Coen and Gretchen Larson are among two of the faithful St. Joseph parishioners who recycle the parish’s plastic bottles. They use the bulk of proceeds to prepare food packages for the homeless and pair them with toiletry donations from the parish. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

Local Catholics are proving water bottles don’t lose their usefulness once they’ve quenched someone’s thirst.

They manage to sustain body and soul even when empty. The secret lies in creating accessible ways for parishioners to pool their recycling collection of empty water bottles.

Volunteers use proceeds to buy food at discount and warehouse stores plus wet wipes. It supplements the good work of fellow St. Joseph parishioners who routinely donate toiletries and hygiene items for those in the community living on the streets or otherwise in need.

Parishioners like Glenda Coen, who began the recycling effort nearly a year ago, assemble separate food and toiletry bags then clip them together prior to distribution at street corners and such.

“I’ve had the stinkiest, dirtiest looking person I gave one to give me a hug,” Coen said.

She doesn’t mind. Her only aim is to provide others with anything that someone would need on a daily basis to have some dignity.

Her work derives from the outreach Coen supported at her former parish in California. Catholics there opened the parish kitchen every Saturday to feed the homeless. Coen found herself donating her empty plastic bottles to a female guest living in her van after losing Social Security income. Recycling proceeds gave the woman a bit of gas money to keep warm.

“It just stuck with me. You see these people week after week. They’re hungry. They’re dirty. They’re afraid to be out there in the world where anything can happen to them,” Coen said.

Her heart breaks for their situation. She’s not alone. Parishioners have pitched in so much that surplus supplies now fill a storage closet in the parish’s family room.

Dcn. ___ blesses food packages for the homeless as St. Joseph parishioners Gretchen Larson, Becky Sanchez and Glenda Coen join him in prayer. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)
Dcn. Sione Hola blesses food packages for the homeless as St. Joseph parishioners Gretchen Larson, Becky Sanchez and Glenda Coen join him in prayer. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

“We’re not going to end world hunger, but we’re at least going to sustain someone for a day or half a day,” Coen said.

Parishioners enable the ongoing outreach. They’re faithfully recycling their water bottles — there are four collection barrels that surround the church, playground and nearby St. Joseph House — and diligently donating toiletries for the packages.

They step up for special “asks” too. So many supported the parish’s giving tree effort at Christmastime to collect adult socks, that volunteers could still stuff a new pair into the bag of toiletries in late March.

Leaders of the Jesus Loves You Water Ministry discovered this crucifix in their supply closet after sorting out toiletries for delivery to the homeless. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)
Leaders of the Jesus Loves You Water Ministry discovered this crucifix in their supply closet after sorting out toiletries for delivery to the homeless. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

“The response of the parishioners was overwhelming,” Coen said. “I’m just glad that God is helping lead us through this.”

Her first trip to the recycling yard yielded $2. Recycling has raked in as much as $51 for a single trip with the pool now totaling more than $250. Becky Vasquez and Gretchen Larson, her partners in the ministry, regularly make separate or caravan trips to the recycling yard.

The ladies recently began adding a small notepad and pen to the food and toiletry packages. They thought the recipient might need to jot down a job lead or other vital information. Almost no object is too foreign for St. Joseph’s tandem recycling and giving effort, dubbed the “Jesus Loves You Water Ministry.”

Larson has even given out brand new backpacks she obtained at deep clearance prices. She can’t forget the joy that came over a man when he realized he could finally replace his ratty one.

“I’ve had them cry and look inside and the tears just came,” Larson said between assembling new food packets. “It’s always a God bless you.”

Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 12.14.35 PMThe blessing is mutual. St. Joseph’s “Knit Wits” ministry provides handmade prayer pockets for the packages. Donors fill them with a Guardian Angel prayer card or other holy card. The knitters donate scarves and hats in the winter months.

When recipients ask about how the food and gift packages came to be they reply, “That’s so awesome.” The occasional sucker or other candied treat often lifts their spirits too.

The same holds true for the parish’s religious education children. Recycling proceeds also provide healthy snacks and faith-based rewards — all wrapped up in kid-friendly “Jesus Loves You” bags — for the little ones. Teachers use them as incentives for stellar attendance and other milestones.

Fr. Reggie Carreon, pastor, has been known to give the adult and kid packets to children, especially those in large families. It keeps little hands busy and motivates children to come to church where they will be fed body and soul for the rest of their lives.

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