by Marie Elena Giossi
At St. Leo’s School in Corona, social justice is more than a noble concept taught in religion class; it’s a lived commitment to recognizing and serving Christ among the neighborhood’s neediest residents.
For almost six years, the school has operated a food pantry, which opens once monthly and distributes bags filled with food to anyone seeking help – no questions asked.
“Our credo is ‘Seeing Christ in one another,’ and we live that,” said Maureen Blaine, school principal. “We always try to bring the students’ consciousness up – that they’re part of a very big picture.”
Operating the food pantry was a brainstorm of the school community, Blaine explained. “We decided that we should walk the talk, so to speak, and it evolved.”
The pantry is entirely dependent on free-will offerings, so the school and parish run ongoing drives for nonperishable food. Parish volunteers sort and store the donated items. Eighth graders and school faculty bag and distribute the food at the end of every month.
On the last Wednesday of May, dozens of people – some with walkers, others with baby strollers – lined up outside the church basement hours before the food pantry’s doors were scheduled for their 4 p.m. opening.
Downstairs, the eighth-grade class and several teachers prepared more than 150 bags and set up specialty tables with baby food, donated clothing and shoes.
When the pantry doors open, everyone is asked to sign in and write down the number of people in their families so the parish has some sense of how many people are benefitting from this service – and how many people are in need.
“This is a small representation of the part of the community that is most in need,” said Father Carlos Agudelo, parochial vicar.
“Many parishioners are immigrants,” he said, explaining that most are Spanish-speaking Latinos from South and Central America.
Many also do not have jobs and have a difficult time supporting their families.
Reaching Out to Community
Father Agudelo said it is the responsibility of the church – both universal and local – to not only make these immigrants feel welcome but also address their needs. He is proud to see the young people of the school reaching out to the community.
Before food is distributed, Father Agudelo leads an opening prayer.
“We thank God for the people doing this (running the pantry),” he said. And he reminds guests that even those who donated the food may not have an abundance, but still they shared what they had.
With Father Agudelo’s blessing the distribution begins in an orderly fashion as guests line up to accept their portion.
Each person receives one plastic shopping bag containing dry pasta, a jar of pasta sauce, rice, canned tuna, boxed cereal and canned beans. The number of items included depends upon how many donations are received that month.
Eighth grader Sabina Rodriguez enjoys greeting the guests and helping them sign in. She takes the time to smile at each person as she directs them to the donation table.
“We help a lot of people, and it is a really good feeling to help,” Rodriguez said. “We try to give at least eight items in every bag, and I know for a month that’s not really much, but it does help, and that’s what really counts.”
Rodriguez said that guests are usually very grateful and often thank her personally for the food. Some even want to pray with her.
“I know God is looking at me and saying, ‘That’s a good thing you’re doing in your life,’” she said. “I know I do a lot of things wrong, but this is one thing I know we’re all doing right.”
After each month’s food pantry, the supplies are gone, and the next month is spent replenishing the stock.
Struggle to Keep Up
“It’s a struggle to keep up with the food needed every month,” Blaine admitted, but she feels it’s a worthy struggle.
She believes that this is “a wonderful experience for the eighth graders. They see people of faith putting their words into action. It’s not just a Hail Mary, an Our Father and we’ll be on our way.”
It’s a commitment she hopes continues at the school and in each student’s heart, where she hopes that they never lose their zeal nor the ability to always “see Christ in one another.”