This article was originally published in the Dec. 25, 2016 edition of the Sun.
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There’s a lot of good happening at St. Francis Xavier Center in Worcester, and some of it is invisible.
The center’s St. John’s Food for the Poor program “prevents homelessness as much as it feeds the homeless,” said the Rev. John Madden, pastor of St. John’s Catholic Church.
Father Madden’s parish started the program about 12 years ago. From 6:30 to 10:30 a.m. every Monday through Friday, volunteers at the St. Francis Xavier Center feed about 500 to 700 hungry people.
For most people, having a warm meal and food to last through the day is a given. However, for an ever increasing number of Worcester residents, hunger would be an everyday reality if it were not for St. John’s Food for the Poor.
The program provides meals for the homeless, the unemployed, those on fixed incomes, and the working poor. Without the food, clothes, toiletries, services and sense of community St. John’s provides, many of the individuals who eat at the center would not be able to afford their housing or obtain nourishment. By saving the little money they have on not buying food, individuals and families are able to afford their housing or rent. This, Father Madden says, is how more homelessness is prevented.
His church, at 44 Temple St., realized there was a need for providing meals in the mornings, since most soup kitchens and shelters only provide lunch and dinner. Started in St. John’s basement, the Food for the Poor program gradually grew in terms of services, clientele and staff, which led to the construction and recent expansion of the Xavier Center at 20 Temple St.
Many members of the Worcester community have come together to volunteer, including school groups, local politicians such as the district attorney’s office, and well-known area businesses such as Masis Staffing Solutions, Commerce Bank and George’s Coney Island Lunch. In the past, Red Sox players Rich Gedman — a city native and St. Peter-Marian High School legend — and Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd even showed up to help.
This sense of community helps those who seek food at the center realize they are not alone and are, in fact, valued.
Father Madden feels the best gift the church can give is helping people feel welcome in the community. “Especially during Christmas, when we celebrate that God is with us. We do the same with the meal, that you are not alone,” he said.
Billy Riley has been director of St. John’s Food for the Poor since the St. Francis Xavier Center opened in 2013. A parishioner, businessman and community leader Frank Carroll — not your average parishioner — spearheaded the building of the center, helping to raise much of the $1.8 million dollars it took to construct the original 5,500-square-foot facility. Recently an expansion was added in order to accommodate all of the food donations the church was receiving.
One of Riley’s biggest and proudest accomplishments has been the partnership he engineered with local branches of Stop & Shop supermarkets.
He is very grateful for Stop & Shop’s generosity. “They give us everything,” Riley said. “They don’t throw anything out in the dumpster.”
Fresh fruits and vegetables — which can be picked up on Saturday mornings — as well as dairy products and high-quality meats are all given to the church to feed the poor. The center receives four vans full of food every day, and has freezers and storage stocked with every food item imaginable. Birthday cakes, diapers, baby food, small toys, sushi, sandwiches, milk, medicine, and homemade dishes are among the various kinds of donations the center receives.
Riley believes in offering dignity to those who need help. Twice a year, he gives out prime rib and shrimp. “Just because someone is poor does not give anyone the right to serve them garbage,” he said.
Instead of settling for junk food that is more affordable than fresh fruits and vegetables, Riley wanted families in need to have access to nutritious foods. “I changed the scope of what people eat here,” he said. If not for Riley and Stop & Shop manager Pat Hickey being so persistent a few years back, the fresh food that is now being donated from multiple Stop & Shop locations, as well as Target and LongHorn Steakhouse, would have been thrown out, he said.
Along with a hearty breakfast, the center is also able to provide to-go lunches and food that individuals can take home to their families.
“We get a lot of kids that come in,” Riley said. “They are poor, so they come in before school and eat.” Riley said he always makes sure to save special treats and toys for the kids.
Everyone who comes into the center for help knows Riley.
Instead of just giving away food, Riley focuses on building relationships with the people who come in, finding out what they need, and finding it for them. “What you want to do is give these people dignity. They are poor, they don’t have anything,” he said.
As Riley says, “This is not your typical soup kitchen.” Due to the high volume of donations, St. John’s Food for the Poor can be pragmatic as well as idealistic. For instance, unlike most similar services, the Xavier Center can accommodate folks with food allergies.
Riley is very proud of the center as well as the volunteers he supervises.
“A lot of people would not be alive if it was not for St. John’s. They would not be able to eat,” he said. However, he wants the center to get even better, saying he hopes “in the future that every person who is hungry gets to come here to eat. Because when they do, they come back.”
Even though Riley was one of 16 children — his youngest brother is former Red Sox farmhand Ed Riley, another Saint Peter-Marian baseball legend — his family always had food on the table. In his position now, Riley is happy that he is able to help those less fortunate. “I am a hero to the poor and there is no greater thing to be.”
Kelvin Graves, 41, is homeless and has been coming to St. John’s Food for the Poor for years. Indeed, he said his food, clothing, socks, gloves and coat all came from the church.
Graves said he lives in an abandoned trailer and with the stigma that comes from being homeless.
“We try. But it’s hard, it’s really hard,” Graves said. “Especially if you have a criminal record. They don’t want to hire me because I’m homeless but I would not be homeless if I had a job.” He said that amid his struggles one of the things that has kept him going is the sense of community found at St. John’s, which he said is different from the atmosphere at other shelters and soup kitchens, “We all take care of each other here.”
Gary Hutchinson, 59, has been eating at the St. Francis Xavier Center for two years. Hutchinson went through a period when he was homeless, and heard about St. John’s through word of mouth on the street. Today, Hutchinson has found housing but is still struggling. He said that many people from the homeless shelters eat at St. John’s. He said of the partnership between the church and Stop & Shop, “It benefits the people with money [Stop & Shop] and the people without.”
Wanda Tepper, 46, comes to St. John’s Food for the Poor every day. “This place is a blessing to me and all the people who come here,” she said.
Not only does she eat there daily, but she brings back food for her neighbors, her sister, and her sister’s children.
“This is the gift that keeps on giving,” Tepper said. Sometimes people can’t get to the center because they do not have a car or have little children to watch, she said. So she gets food from the center and in turn helps others.
In addition to food, clothes and necessities, the program provides pet food. And on certain days medical care. Tepper said that St. John’s really provides for the whole family and Riley always finds whatever she needs. “St. John’s is not just for the homeless; this is for everybody. Nobody is ever turned away.”
Tepper said that as director, Riley strives to take care of everyone who walks through the doors. She is also very grateful to the dedicated volunteers who work throughout the year in order to help those less fortunate.
“These people donate hope,” she said.
Those interested in volunteering at or donating to St. John’s Food for the Poor can visit its website for more information.