SUNNYSIDE — Carlos Apestegui came to the U.S. from his native Peru several years ago and settled in Queens, where he scraped together a living by being a day laborer, working odd jobs for anyone who would hire him.
His grit and his determination to improve his life so impressed Father Brian Dowd, pastor of Queen of Angels Church, Sunnyside, that he hired him to serve as a facilities manager. But Apestegui never forgot what it was like to be a day laborer and enjoys giving back.
“I know what they go through,” Apestegui told The Tablet.
Now he is part of a group of volunteers that delivers breakfast to day laborers in several Queens neighborhoods.
Once a month, kindhearted parishioners from Queen of Angels Church load up two minivans with hundreds of breakfast sandwiches, bagels, soups, coffee, and tea and drives out to several Queens neighborhoods to deliver food to immigrant day laborers who congregate on local streets waiting to be hired for per diem jobs.
“We’ve been doing it for nine years,” Father Dowd told The Tablet.
Day laborers live a precarious existence — standing on street corners and in parking lots for hours on end hoping that someone will hire them for the day so that they can make some money and feed their families. They don’t know from one day to the next if they are going to be working. Many of them are undocumented immigrants.
The parishioners want to do what they can to help.
“They make sure to go out early in the morning before the laborers get hired for the day,” said Father Dowd, who sometimes accompanies his parishioners on their rounds and leads the group in prayer at each stop.
“We stay out there until we have given out all of our food,” Apestegui said.
The volunteers always receive a warm reception. “They are so happy to see us,” Apestegui said.
Aura Merila, who leads the program and organizes the distribution effort, estimated that the volunteers hand out 200 breakfasts during a typical delivery day. The volunteers go out on the third Saturday of the month.
The prayers are just as important as the food, according to Merila, who said the parishioners are trying to deliver a message of hope to the day laborers. “We tell them we love them and that we always pray for them. You have to pray to be closer to God,” she told The Tablet.
In addition to the food and the prayers, the parishioners hand out hats and gloves so that the day laborers can stay warm during the winter.
Most of the day laborers the parishioners encounter on the streets of Sunnyside, Astoria and Flushing are Spanish-speaking immigrants from Mexico and Central America.
The volunteers are part of a program at Queen of Angels called Grupo Jornaleros, which is Spanish for Group of Day Laborers. The name is no accident since the parishioners who came up with the idea for the food delivery were day laborers themselves at one time.
Nine years ago, Apestegui and a small group of parishioners approached Father Dowd with the idea of a food distribution program and he immediately approved it. The first delivery took place on Thanksgiving Day.
“The parishioners have always been willing to help others,” Father Dowd said. That generosity soon spread to parishioners who are not part of Grupo Jornaleros. The church has a special collection at Masses once a month with the money going toward the program. “The parishioners have been very generous in that collection,” the pastor said.
From the beginning, Father Dowd wanted to make sure the operation was properly run. The group works with a budget and submits a monthly report to him. Merila presides over a planning meeting on the second Sunday of the month, where the members discuss what food to purchase.
Even the pandemic hasn’t stopped them, although it has forced them to change their procedures.
The volunteers used to cook the breakfasts themselves in the church’s kitchen. But these days, they stop at a local deli and purchase sandwiches, bagels, and other items so that they’re ready-made and packaged for delivery.
The volunteers no longer give the day laborers the food by hand. Instead, they practice social distancing by setting up a small table at each location and placing the food there for the day laborers to pick.
Careful thought is given to the menu. “We also give them orange juice and a banana,” Merila said. “We want to give them something nutritious.”
The day laborers get something out of the program, but so do the volunteers. They get the satisfaction of knowing they are helping people in need. “We are happy to do something for our brothers and sisters,” Apestegui said.