By Susan Bailey
Brilliant ideas often come at the dinner table. This was the case recently with Jeff and Rose Lawrence and their grandchildren. During a discussion regarding a CCD project taking place at St. Edward’s in Westminster involving Our Father’s House (an organization serving the homeless in Fitchburg), one child posed a question: “What do they do with their stuff?”
“We talked about trash bags and shopping carts and the discussion moved on,” said Mr. Lawrence. “Over time that question continued to come to my mind. Over and over it was just there. That is the inspiration part. I think the Holy Spirit was working in me as the question just wouldn’t go away.”
The result was the birth of a ministry at Mr. Lawrence’s parish of St. Denis in Ashburnham – “Got Your Back.” Mr. Lawrence wanted to provide something to the homeless that would be new and their own, containing needed personal items.
“The idea of giving them something to keep their stuff in came to things like duffle bags, stuff sacks or backpacks. Continued thought had me focused on backpacks as easy to carry and able to hold and protect some of their important stuff,” said Mr. Lawrence through an email interview.
After extensive research, Mr. Lawrence decided that he would purchase new backpacks to present as gifts. Parishioners would be asked to take a backpack and fill it with everyday personal items such as snacks, socks, gloves, soap, deodorant, shaving cream, etc. The backpacks would then be distributed through Our Father’s House, an organization that he and his wife Rose have supported for many years.
“I wanted all the packs to be the same so there is no implied favoritism. The Amazon Basic Backpack fit the bill. I then called Our Father’s House to see if this would work for them and Judith Nest-Pasierb (the executive director) was thrilled with the idea. She gave me a list of supplies to put in the backpacks,” Mr. Lawrence said.
He then approached his parish priest, Father John F. Hamm with the idea and Father Hamm was enthusiastic. Mr. Lawrence then purchased 30 backpacks, 10 each to be distributed at the weekend Masses.
Ten backpacks were displayed on the altar. “When I finished the first presentation at the 4:30 Mass, I was so worried that I wouldn’t even be able to get rid of the 10 that we had for that Mass,” Mr. Lawrence said.
The response however, was immediate. Not only were all the backpacks taken but people donated money so that more could be purchased.
The program has now expanded to include the help of another well-known organization.
“I approached our St. Vincent de Paul chapter and they volunteered to continue purchasing the backpacks,” Mr. Lawrence said.
Since its inception on October 15, some 120 backpacks have been distributed to the homeless through Our Father’s House. And more keep coming in.
“Many of my parishioners have expressed to me their desire for a ministry for people in need in our own backyard,” said Father Hamm. “When the Lawrence’s asked about starting ‘Got Your Back’ I couldn’t have been more thrilled to help get it started.”
Mr. Lawrence further explained the appeal of the ministry.
“There are families going out shopping for someone, like Christmas, and putting what they think is important into this new backpack that is going to be given to somebody who’s out there under a bridge, in the woods, (or) wherever it is they’re being able to establish some kind of temporary home.”
Parishioners have expressed to him the pleasure they’ve experienced shopping for someone and considering their specific needs. “It’s a neat evolution of things: they have something tangible to take home which is the backpack; then they fill it with their own creative spirit. It’s a simple idea but I think it’s very profound,” Mr. Lawrence said.
Ms. Nest-Pasierb agrees.
“Our Father’s House is so appreciative of the ‘Got Your Back’ ministry from Jeff and Rose. The backpacks have been passed out to chronically street-homeless individuals who don’t have much. These individuals live in tents in the woods or under bridges. The backpacks were filled with blankets, socks, toiletries and more. These items are truly needed by those less fortunate than us. Our agency doesn’t have the funds to purchase these items, so having the backpacks donated was a blessing.
“Our Street Outreach staff, Kevin MacLean, reaches the homeless and now he can bring a backpack gift with him to pass out. Kevin has seen smiles from many homeless individuals when they receive the backpack,” Ms. Nest-Pasierb said.
Blessings have a way of returning.
“‘Got Your Back’ has been a spiritual bright spot in our parish, illuminating for all to see the great generosity of the people of God in Ashburnham,” said Father Hamm. “To see so many backpacks placed before our Lord’s altar is inspiring to say the least. This ministry has taken on a life of its own. May it catch on throughout our diocese and beyond.”
– Jeff Lawrence will speak at parishes interested in starting up a similar program. Contact him through St. Denis Parish at 978-827-5806.