Church’s Cardboard City campaign coming up

By Laurie Schlatter
Citizen Chronicle Writer

SOUTHBRIDGE — On a day when the cold of winter was refusing to make way for spring, Matthew Hart, assistant youth minister for three years at St. John Paul II Parish, said the people taking part in this weekend’s Cardboard City project for the homeless are going to get a small taste of sleeping in the cold.

The youths in middle and high school and young adults in college, accompanied by an equal number of parents, will be setting up their cardboard boxes to spend the night, from 6 p.m. Friday to 10 a.m. Saturday, in the parking lot behind Notre Dame Church at the top of the hill at 446 Main St.

They will have access to a place to get warm, Mr. Hart said, but the whole point of the overnight exercise was to raise awareness of what it’s like to not have a place to call home.

Cardboard City, sponsored by the St. John Paul II Parish, is also a fundraiser: “All the money raised by this event, 50 percent would go directly to the homeless, and that would be to St. Luke’s Guesthouse to provide food and shelter,” Mr. Hart said.

“The other half would go to participants’ churches’ youth ministry and social justice programs. I really wanted this event to be open to anybody,” he said, regardless of which church they attend. “That other 50 percent will go to their own church. We want the kids to feel that their time and effort is going to benefit the ministry that they do at their church.”

Mr. Hart has spoke at length about the intent and purpose of Cardboard City in an interview Tuesday at his office in the parish ministry center, 279 Hamilton St., which also home to the parish food pantry:

How many years has this project taken place? A 2006 news article about a similar event in Whitinsville referred to the Southbridge project. It goes back a ways.

“My understanding that deacon Dick Olson, back in the ’90s, got it started at St. Mary’s parish here, before the four Catholic Churches in Southbridge merged, and he was very dynamic and loved getting the kids involved. So Cardboard City was one of the things he got started here. I guess it took place right here on the front lawn on Hamilton Street, and it rained torrentially one time. So they had to get the tarps out. I guess they had a great time, but had to rough it for one night, sacrificing one night of comfort, a warm, dry bed.”

How many youths and young adults do you have signed up for this event?

“We have about a dozen young people and about as many adults — a few are parents, but most of them are on this great middle school-high school LifeTeen adult ministry we have here. The team is fairly young, about a year and a half, and they are very faithful. This group of adults comes every Sunday night for our middle school and high school programs.”

Describe the project in its current incarnation, not from the 1990s, but how does it work now?

“The whole idea behind the Cardboard City homeless project is to instill within our young people and our parish families’ adults an an awareness of the plight of the homeless, especially here in Southbridge. Often these people are hidden from our sight. We’re just not aware of them, but they’re there. Here especially at the parish ministry center, because we have the food pantry, we have kids who come and volunteer especially on Tuesday afternoons to load groceries, help clients pick out groceries, help cart the groceries out to the cars. So the kids are aware of poverty, of people who are in need of financial help, assistance with food. But there are people who do not have a place to stay at night.”

Matt Hart, assistant youth minister, in the St. John Paul II Food Pantry at 279 Hamilton Street in Southbridge.

No firm estimate is available for how many people are homeless in Southbridge. Dr. John Howland, executive director of St. Luke’s Guesthouse, the town’s homeless shelter, has been invited to speak to the group early Saturday morning.

“Our kids would not be typically aware there is a place here in Southbridge, right on Main Street next to the credit union, that offers a place, a warm shelter for those who are in need.”

Is every participant asked to raise $200?

“Any amount the kids raise will be helpful, totally awesome. We’ve designated as suggested goal of $200 to work towards. If they raise less, it’s OK.”

The important thing is their participation.

“That’s correct.”

What are you going to do about security and medical needs?

“That’s an important question, especially today, given the violence we have in different states and in our schools. We’re holding this event in a very secure location behind Notre Dame Church that recently modified to accommodate parking. There’s still a grassy section, but it’s gated, so we’re going to close off the parking lot. This is going to be a well-chaperoned event. We’re going to park cars in front of the gates and adults posted there at the gates. Part of the event packet given to the kids and parents is a health form to list any allergies, health issues, emergency contact number.”

Matt Hart, assistant youth minister, shares the lessons of Cardboard City from his office in the parish ministry office.

Is this the kind of thing where you have to have an ambulance standing by?

“No, but one of the adults on the team, his wife is a nurse at Harrington Hospital and she is volunteering to be here with us all night. Actually, Harrington has donated their mobile unit, so kids can warm up and at the Notre Dame rectory. We’re going to have a bonfire.”

It sounds pretty good if it were a little warmer out, 60 instead of 30.

“I know. This is the first time we have had Cardboard City here since, I think, 2014. The last few years, the group over at St. Ann’s in Fiskdale has been doing this every year for quite a few years, and they’ve invited us, the youth at St. John Paul II, to participate, and I’ve participated in the event at St. Ann’s as well. We wanted to do this together, but it didn’t work out.”

St. Ann’s is doing one as well?

“They’re doing one and it’s actually the same night as ours. … I wanted to resurrect it here in the parish — it’s just a great location — and to get our kids here locally involved.”

So it’s been four years? Congratulations.

“Hopefully, this will be a really positive event for everyone! When I scheduled it for this time of year, I was thinking it would be good to do it during Lent and that it would still be probably cold. Even though it is the first day of spring, winter still has its grip. The idea was to let the kids experience the cold, being outdoors, because that’s just how it is for so many people in the middle of winter and they have to look for scraps of cardboard. Especially in Worcester, you see that as you’re passing in the city, people just have these makeshift shelters just trying to survive. So it’s good for our kids to just have a taste of that.”

I was wondering what you hope they learn. You’ve addressed that in several ways, about instilling an awareness of the homeless, of the poverty and the need. There’s also biblical principles at work here as well. Is that part of the learning process?

“It is. I’m glad you brought that up. I’m thinking right now of our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Matthew, chapter 5, where he said, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit.’ So many of our kids don’t suffer for a lack of basics. They have homes and they have heat and they have food. If they need something, there’s cash where they can go to the store and buy something; it’s usually not an issue. It’s easy to take these necessities for granted.

“So I’m hoping at Cardboard City we have a chance to spend some quality time together to look at what we really need to be thankful for, and to consider those people who find themselves in a terrible situation of having lost homes sometimes through natural disasters, they had a fire, or just hard times. Maybe a parent has lost a job and it’s hard to pay the bills and maybe they hit rock bottom. You know it could happen to any one of us.

“That’s kind of waking up to the fact that people don’t generally choose to be homeless. It can happen to people who have a beautiful home, a great-paying job, have good health, and hard times can hit any one of us.”

The Sermon on the Mount — are you going to be talking to the kids about the words of Jesus and how they apply to this situation?

“Absolutely.”

The reason I ask is because my goal in doing these kinds of stories is just to talk about how we as a community put our faith into action. Whether it’s Catholic or Protestant or Baptist or Jewish or whatever your denomination is, people who believe in God put their faith in action. That’s my goal here, to learn how this is an expression of that, how you’re putting your faith in action and how these kids are going to learn from that.

“We were doing the Stations of the Cross with the elementary school kids (Monday) here at St. Mary’s Church. And as we were praying, we came to the station where Veronica wipes the face of Jesus. Here you have this face-to-face encounter between the Lord who is carrying his cross and this woman shows compassion to our Lord, who is suffering. When we encounter someone who is suffering, there’s a response within each one of us. We want to do something to help. That’s when I see my faith coming alive. Faith without deeds is dead, as St. James said: I will show you the faith behind my deeds (James 2). That’s the evidence of a living faith. When you’re doing something for someone, showing charity, kindness, patience, all of these virtues, giving food to the hungry, giving shelter to the homeless — these are ways to show faith.”

And that’s also part of the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount.

“One more thing, too. Our Lord, at the end, when he comes the second time, he’ll call everybody, but the righteous who showed mercy to others, he’ll say: Inherit the kingdom prepared for you, because when you gave to the least of these, whatever you did to the least of these, you did it to me (Matthew 25).”

Matt Hart, assistant youth minister, speaking with Irene Salonis, a volunteer at the St John Paul II Food Pantry at 279 Hamilton Street in Southbridge.

Is there anything I haven’t asked that you would like to address?

“We need prayers that this event touches the hearts of the kids and adults who participate and that they will be inspired to share their experience with their friends, and that maybe it will touch other hearts to reach out and get involved in the community to do something for somebody else. It can be even at school, because I remind the kids that whatever we do here, at LifeTeen and Edge (programs), where we talk about giving to the poor, I said, ‘You know, we’re all poor.’ I think poverty is expressed in many different ways. Even on the bus ride to school, maybe there’s someone who would like to sit down, but there are kids who refuse to move over and let them sit down. (Some kids don’t get) the care at home that you would expect they should get, like clean clothes.

“We need to show kindness to everybody, that’s the point, especially when it’s uncomfortable and you really have to go out of your way. That’s when it counts the most, not when it always feels good. That’s the message I want to give kids, that in following Jesus it’s easy when it’s on our terms, but how about when it’s going to cost you something — a little bit of pain, a little bit of suffering. True compassion moves us to do the extra, go the extra miles, give the shirt off our own backs to someone who really needs it and that means that maybe we’re going to be cold.

“My own experience is that we all have needs, but like our Lord said, in giving, you receive. It’s like a universal law, like a law of the cosmos. You don’t have to believe in God for this to be true. I think it’s true for everybody. When you give from your own need — I’ve experienced it many, many times — it comes back twofold.”

And not necessarily in material ways. Actually, hardly ever in material ways, but in ways that are far more fulfilling and meaningful.

“Like friendship.”

Exactly. … There’s more important things in this world.

“I timed Cardboard City for this weekend because we have our annual flower delivery to our shut-ins. I’m inviting our participants to help deliver the flowers to the nursing home on Dresser Street at 9 o’clock Saturday morning. So many of our elderly in the nursing home don’t receive visitors, they don’t have family or friends. To receive one of our young people with a flower, it’s an amazing moment.”

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