St. Bernardine Church | File photo

If we were playing a word association game and the words “homeless” and “hungry” were brought up, Forest Park residents would probably mention Housing Forward or the Community Center Food Pantry or maybe the CROP Hunger Walk. But St. Bernardine’s Vincent DePaul (VDP) group has also been serving the needs of that population for years, albeit pretty much under the community’s radar.

Karl Gawlas, a St. B parishioner who currently heads up the VDP group said, “The St. Bernardine/St. Vincent de Paul Society conference has been around for 90 years, adjusting to serving the needs of the community as needs change.”

The VDP group has for years been operating a non-perishable food pantry to distribute bags of groceries to clients who come on Saturday mornings between 9 and 11 a.m., but the ministry has responded creatively in several ways to the increased needs brought about by the pandemic.

Before the COVID virus made social distancing at the overnight shelters impossible, St. Bernardine members would prepare dinners once a month for the homeless who were being sheltered at the St. Mary of Celle site in Berwyn. In addition, VDP would also fund and order toiletries and clothing (T-shirts, underwear, socks, etc.) to provide to the clients there.

For the past year because of the virus, Housing Forward has had to change its service model from nightly shelters housing over 40 guests in a gym or social hall, a setting that does not allow for social distancing, to housing the guests in individual rooms at the Write Inn and other locations.

VDP has changed its service model along with Housing Forward. The group now networks with a nonprofit called Project22:NINE which, according to its website, has “found a way to repurpose high-quality, healthy, fresh pre-cooked meals — the overproduction of subscription meal programs — to the kitchens and pantries that needed them most.”

Each week, VDP receives pre-packaged complete meals from Project22:NINE, and acts like what Gawlas describes as a “middle man” distributing the meals to the residents at the Write Inn and to various Chicagoland social service agencies, churches, food pantries and soup kitchens, including the Forest Park Food Panty and the St. Bernardine/VDP food pantry on Saturday mornings.

In addition to distributing the meals received from Project22:NINE, St. Bernardine volunteers provide bags of groceries from their modest food pantry housed in the rectory, as well as, at times, financial aid.

“Clients,” said Donna Gawlas, who co-leads VDP, “might need help with rent, energy bills, etc. Members of VDP would visit a client’s home and do intake to accommodate needed financial assistance on an occasional basis.”

If a client expresses financial hardship, intake of information is conducted, asking for specific documentation for direct payment of a bill to the vendor. VDP members determine need and payment, while respecting client privacy and confidentiality. No money is given to an individual. Clients served have come from Forest Park and surrounding communities.

In addition to the food received from Project22:NINE, the St. Bernardine Vincent DePaul group relies on donations of food and money from parish members and the community. An example, said Donna Gawlas, is parishioner Ed Nutley from Ed’s Way, who has been very generous and supportive to both donate food, but also help order food that VDP can purchase to re-stock the food pantry.

The VDP group has also partnered with the Forest Park Public Library at the corner of Desplaines and Jackson which has transformed their former book box into a snack pantry.  St. B’s volunteers deliver items from their food pantry when the supply at the snack box is low.

“This,” Karl Gawlas noted, “helps the transient population near the end-of-the-line train tracks.”

Aware that the need for food in these times is especially great and resources are relatively small, Karl and Donna Gawlas said, “Our outreach needs expansion to identify where the prepared food can go, including building our shut-in base. In addition, a volunteer base can grow with the outreach expansion. Currently St. Bernardine/VDP has a small group of members and a handful of dedicated volunteers.

“Overall, St. Bernardine/VDP has a well-stocked pantry to give to those in need. The grass roots, under-the-radar ministry can be expanded with shared knowledge of who might be in need and who might volunteer to help serve.”

Contact the St. Bernardine office at 708-366-0839 during the 8 1 p.m., Monday through Friday office hours to leave a message or get further information.