Andover parish provides Thanksgiving meals for shelter

ANDOVER — Two days before Thanksgiving, St. Augustine School cafeteria was transformed from a place of lunch lines to a place of assembly lines.

The small stage was stacked with food items, and on the cafeteria floor were tables with signs indicating what food items were to be brought there. Men, women and children took empty boxes and, placing like items from the stage in them, filled the cafeteria’s empty tables with canned soup, canned fruit, canned stew, pasta, canned tomatoes, tuna fish, rice, peanut butter, jelly and boxes of instant potatoes, as well as pie crust mix and canned pie filling. While one group sorted the items, another group packed them. In the end, the packages were tallied and taken to a waiting truck for delivery.

They were on a mission: to provide as much food as possible for Lazarus House Ministries, a shelter for the homeless in Lawrence.

The St. Augustine community went above and beyond its goal. After a month-long food drive held by St. Augustine School, the religious education office and youth ministry, the parish collected 5,596 food items and 647 turkeys — representing one-third of the food distributed by Lazarus House during Thanksgiving.

When the number was announced, the 300 people who had volunteer to package the food in the cafeteria broke into a thunderous applause. Once the trucks were packed and on their way to deliver the food to the shelter, the group held a prayer service.

“It’s just so awesome,” said Kathy Blain, food drive coordinator. “It’s such a humbling experience.”

The goal was to provide not just a holiday meal with all the trimmings, but food for the rest of the weekend.

This is the ninth year members of St. Augustine Parish and school have held the food drive. Blain came up with the idea when she was involved in religious education and wanted to do some outreach with Lazarus House. The first year she ended up with 99 Thanksgiving dinners and at the last minute was able to get a turkey to make it 100.

Blain, who is middle level coordinator at St. Augustine School, said the project has grown every year. In 2002, they collected almost 7,000 food items and 587 turkeys were donated.

"I just think we have so much," Blain said. "It's important to reflect how truly blessed we are and how wonderful it is to give back as a community."

Blain said she is pleased to see alumni come back to volunteer as well as parents working alongside their children. Some students use their allowances or money from their piggy banks to buy food items.

"It's a conscious-raising for the kids who live in communities like ours who sleep in a warm bed, have good food and look forward to a wonderful holiday," Blain said.

Lindsey Gwynne of Boxford was one of the students who were packing foods.

"It gives us a chance to help the less fortunate," said Lindsey, a seventh grade student.

Bridget Shaheen, executive director of Lazarus House, is appreciative of the work St. Augustine Parish community does for them for the holiday.

"St. Augustine is like Jesus: They're always there, no matter what the needs are," Shaheen said. "This is what giving and compassion is about. I don't know what we would do without them."