Diocesan News

Bensonhurst Woman Calls Helping The Homeless ‘Blessing in a Bag’

Sandy Irrera gathers supplies on her dining room table as she prepares a new Blessing Bag. The Blessing Bag project is her newest charitable endeavor. For the past several years, Irrera has organized fundraisers for the American Cancer Society, local shelters for domestic violence victims, and other recipients. (Photo: Paula Katinas)

BENSONHURST — With thousands of people living on the streets and sleeping in the subways, New York City’s homeless situation can seem like an overwhelming crisis with no answers in sight. But one woman is gamely trying to do her part.

Sandy Irrera knows she can’t solve the problem all by herself. “But I’m doing what I can, in my own small way, to help,” she said.

Irrera, a school crossing guard from Bensonhurst, helps the homeless in her neighborhood by assembling emergency supplies — a bottle of water, two candy bars, a tube of toothpaste, a bar of soap, a hat, gloves, and a pair of socks — and placing them in small plastic bags, called Blessing Bags, which she then gives out to homeless people she encounters.

“I always keep at least three Blessing Bags in my car so that if I see someone, I can jump out and give them one,” she explained.

Blessing Bags are not a new concept. Jahkil Naeem Jackson, a 15-year-old high school student in Chicago, is credited with starting the trend back in 2015 when he was just 8. His efforts exploded on social media, and people across the country started following his lead.

Irrera, who spends her days making sure children walking to and from P.S. 204 on 15th Avenue cross the street safely, started her Blessing Bag project last month. She read a post on Facebook from a woman who had started doing it and decided to follow suit. To date, she has distributed approximately 20 bags.

“I don’t have a plan. It’s not a big orchestrated thing. It’s just a little something I do. I want to prove to people that it doesn’t take much to help. You don’t have to give $1 million. You can take five minutes to put a couple of supplies in a bag and give it out.”

Irrera also brings bags to Holding Hands Ministries, a grassroots group located on Seventh Avenue in Dyker Heights that provides food, shelter, and other services.

Irrera, a Catholic, said she feels she is living out her faith by helping the homeless. “It’s what we’re supposed to do,” she added.

There are large numbers of homeless in New York City. According to the Department of Homeless Services, 67,880 people were sleeping in city-run shelters as of Jan. 8. The 2022 results of the city’s Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE) tally, in which volunteers go out onto the streets and into the subways to literally count the number of homeless, found nearly 4,000 people.

On a recent Monday morning, Irrera was acting as a one-woman assembly line — standing at the dining room table in her Bensonhurst home as she carefully placed the various items in small plastic bags.

“I try to cover all my bases,” she explained. “I want each bag to have the same things, things I think they could use — a hat to keep them warm, a bottle of water in case they get thirsty, and a snack.”

The last item Irrera puts into each Blessing Bag before sealing it shut is a $5 bill. “I always give them a little money in case they want to buy something,” she explained.

Irrera gathers the supplies in two ways — shopping and donations.

She buys the items when she’s out doing her routine grocery shopping. “You can always get stuff on sale,” she said. And she receives supplies donated by students at P.S. 748 in Bensonhurst. Principal Ursula Annio is one of Irrera’s neighbors.

Irrera has been posting about her project on Facebook and was delighted when others picked up on it and began doing it, too. “It’s like we’re part of a movement,” she said.

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