By Beth Donze
The cold drizzle on Dec. 6 was no match for the 58 sixth graders from St. Margaret Mary School in Slidell, who energetically disembarked from their school bus to devote a full morning of service on behalf of the homeless and hungry.
Their destination: the non-profit Christian Community Concern (CCC) and neighboring Mount Olive African Methodist Episcopal Church, two vital hubs of loving outreach nestled in a quiet, oak-studded area of Olde Towne Slidell.
The sixth graders divided into groups to rotate through tasks that included assembling 150 food baskets that will provide a full Christmas dinner for about 400 Slidell-area homeless: a large turkey, cornbread, scalloped potatoes, stuffing, cornbread, macaroni and cheese, corn, kidney beans and a box of candy.
“They are the hands and feet of Christ,” said Debbie Schimmeck, CCC’s executive director, marveling at how St. Margaret Mary’s sixth graders also supply and pack monthly “wish list” items for CCC. With the arrival of cooler weather, those items have included family-size tents, tarps, pillows, blankets, hats, gloves and flashlights with batteries.
“Hunger and homelessness are big problems (in Slidell),” Schimmeck said, noting that CCC assisted 5,800 people in 2016. “We have three interstates that come through here. People come here looking for work. They land here, and they kind of get stuck,” she said.
Schimmeck said about 600 of last year’s clients were homeless and relied solely on CCC for help. Slidell has one overnight women’s shelter and none for men (the latter are referred to New Orleans).
Moreover, mothers at the women’s shelter are not permitted to keep their adolescent male children with them. To help out, the CCC dispenses emergency groceries to homeless families, including those derailed by fire, job loss, eviction and incarceration. It also provides limited transitional housing on its second floor.
As she was assembling food baskets, sixth grader Chloe Smith recalled a video she had seen in religion class. It focused on a homeless man who kept getting called a “bum” and was told to “get a job” while standing at an intersection.
“But he can’t get a job because you have to leave a phone number – and he didn’t have one,” Chloe said. “He was embarrassed to have to hold up a sign asking for food.”
Other students were deployed to Mount Olive AME Church, a block’s walk from CCC, where they helped to serve lunch to about 20 walk-in guests. Cartons of hot food also were packed for a home-delivery service that feeds some 250 people, six days a week. This food ministry is assisted by outside groups, including St. Margaret Mary Church, the Knights of Columbus, Second Harvest Food Bank and St. Joseph Abbey, which donates bread to the feeding effort from its monk-operated kitchens.
Ella Smith, the director and chief cook for Mount Olive’s hot meal service, said she was happy the sixth graders were learning that homelessness and hunger exist in Slidell.
“We’ve got some suffering people in the world, and you don’t have to go far to find them,” Smith said. “(St. Margaret Mary School is) teaching the kids that there is always going to be somebody who is less fortunate than them,” Smith added. “It’s good for them to come in and see that there’s a need.”
Sixth grader Trey Higgins helped serve the day’s entrée of shepherd’s pie and handed out gift bags to the diners. He said he used to think most homeless people were “crabby” and would decline help.
“But they have taught me that even through hard times you can keep the faith and be happy,” Trey said.
The “learning” dimension of St. Margaret Mary’s service-learning endeavor, supported by the Brown Foundation, is taken very seriously at the school. The issue of homelessness is woven into classes across the sixth-grade curriculum: students do “before” and “after” reflections on the issue in religion; a cost-of-living project in math that shows how easily one can slip into debt; a social studies unit on how monasteries took in the poor during the Middle Ages; and a science project on how climate impacts homelessness.
“It doesn’t take much to become homeless,” noted Scott Osborn, who helped launch St. Margaret Mary’s partnership with CCC and Mount Olive three years ago, in his position as school counselor. Osborn said one of the biggest lessons his sixth graders learn is that there is not just “one type” of poor or homeless person.
“They are people from different walks of life – you may have a mother of two who just lost her job, who might need help with a meal or a utility bill to stay in her apartment; you may have people who are just ‘passing through’ or going through rehabilitation and getting back on their feet,” Osborn said.
“It’s not just what you see on the street corner – someone begging for food with a sign,” he said.