Every Tuesday morning, a group of volunteers fuel themselves with hot coffee and breakfast sandwiches at
Chick-fil-A before they set off on their deliveries to a couple of food pantries and a senior apartment complex.
The helpers humbly view themselves as the hands and feet of God, an example of caritas — a love for humankind through charity. And it’s through the connections they’ve made with others that keeps the work flourishing.
For more than four decades, Caritas Connections has filled a unique role, collecting much-needed donated items and distributing them at no cost to other nonprofit organizations that serve others in need. The nonprofit organization, which operates out of St. Gerard Majella Parish in Kirkwood, expresses its mission as “connecting those who have with those who need.”
On a recent Tuesday morning, volunteer Gary Behrens rounded up his crew and headed to St. Augustine-Wellston Center, followed by stops at Minerva Place Apartments and the St. Nicholas St. Vincent de Paul food pantry (now part of St. Josephine Bakhita Parish). At each site, they delivered fresh loaves of bread and pastries, while the food pantries received extra staples such as canned chicken, peanut butter, individual cups of macaroni and cheese and laundry detergent.
Behrens pointed toward the sky when describing why he helps out with the weekly delivery runs. “We’re all God’s hands, and we’re all doing His work — that’s the way I look at it,” said the longtime St. Gerard Majella parishioner who has been volunteering for more than 20 years.
As Behrens unloaded several boxes of food at St. Augustine-Wellston Center, clients waited inside to receive their monthly allotment of food and personal care items. Executive director Haley Calabro, who was assisting a client with an intake form, gestured toward a cabinet filled with soaps, lotions, toothpaste and other personal hygiene items.
“This is a good representation of what Caritas does,” she said. “It’s nice having this filled with the same products over and over. And at the end of the day, all we want to do is provide consistency to our clients, and that’s what Caritas allows us to do.”
Caritas Connections’ roots begin with one priest, Father Tom Bryon, who with the help of others has quietly done the work of supplying organizations with needed food, clothing, personal care items and more for more than four decades.
While on a walk through the northern edge of the city one day in 1976, Father Bryon noticed the poverty in the area. He asked a local bakery if it had any leftover bread that he could deliver to several St. Vincent de Paul food pantries in the city. The bakery provided four racks of bread, which initiated a series of monthly trips of picking up and delivering items to the food pantries.
As he moved to different assignments throughout his priesthood, parishioners learned about the work and offered to help. The largest number of volunteers have come from St. Gerard Majella, where Father Bryon served from 2002 until his retirement in 2013. As retirement approached, volunteers encouraged him to establish the ministry as a nonprofit organization so that the efforts could continue well into the future. There currently are about 130 volunteers who help with the day-to-day tasks.
In 2022, Caritas Connections provided about $220,000 worth of in-kind donations to 30 clients throughout the St. Louis metro area, including food pantries, children’s service organizations, senior residences and nursing homes, among other organizations. While volunteers and in-kind donations have rebounded since the pandemic, cash donations are especially needed; some volunteers serve as dedicated shoppers for the client organizations, purchasing those items that they need the most.
On a recent Monday morning, several volunteers walked over to St. Gerard Majella’s parish center after 8 a.m. Mass, where donations were waiting to be sorted. They pored through boxes, bins and bags of bread, bagels and pastries, which were picked up from several local businesses over the weekend. Each item is carefully inspected to make sure it is suitable to be donated, and then they’re sorted into groupings for delivery to clients later in the week.
“We are very careful about what we send people. We look through everything to make sure it’s fresh and not broken,” said Mary Kempa, a St. Gerard Majella parishioner who oversees the distribution of the items. “We don’t pass things along that we wouldn’t want to eat ourselves.”
Later that morning, another volunteer delivered a load of peanut butter, canned chicken, individual mac and cheese cups and laundry detergent, all of which were purchased with cash donations. A parishioner also dropped by with two pairs of men’s corduroy pants to be donated.
When Darlene Corley’s husband, Jerry, died three years ago, she called Father Bryon to see where she could donate her husband’s suits and other clothing, which were still in good condition. Father knew exactly which connection would put them to good use: the U.S. Federal Probation Office, which serves parolees who are starting new lives after incarceration.
“The men are looking for jobs and trying to get a new start,” said Corley, who regularly helps sort through the donated bread and pastries. Afterward, she received a thank you from Caritas Connections stating, “this helps us with furthering our mission: connecting those who have with those who need.”
There’s also an element of surprise with other donations that come from local businesses or individuals. As Kempa peeked into a refrigerator and deep freezer, she spotted a box filled with individual bags of deli meat picked up from a local grocery store. “Look at this — this is awesome. We rarely get protein,” she said. “Whenever we come in here, it’s always a surprise. It’s really all directed by the Holy Spirit.”
As volunteers sort through the donations, Kempa encourages them to pray. “We might receive a kind of unusual donation, so I will say, ‘please put it on my heart which client we should give this to,’” she said. “I’ll tell them, say a prayer to the Holy Spirit, and it will come upon you where you should take it.”
The prayers seem to guide the donations right where they need to be. Just before the St. Nicholas St. Vincent de Paul food pantry opened for the morning, Behrens and his delivery crew dropped by with several boxes of food. St. Vincent de Paul food pantry volunteers Ella Scott and Carole Johnson thanked the drivers for their delivery as they got to work sorting through the items.
“God gives us what He needs us to have,” said Scott, a St. Josephine Bakhita parishioner.
Caritas Connections lifts up their day-to-day work serving neighbors in need throughout a wide area of north St. Louis, said Johnson, a St. Josephine Bakhita parishioner who also serves as president of St. Vincent de Paul’s St. Louis Archdiocesan Council.
“We’re all supposed to be one, and the neighbors in need belong to all of us,” Johnson said. “We see the face of Christ in others, and hopefully they see the face of Christ in us as well.”
Caritas Connections is dedicated to “connecting those who have with those who need” and continues Jesus’ mission to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and help the sick, suffering and homeless. The nonprofit organization serves more than two dozen clients (most of them are nonprofit organizations such as food pantries, senior homes and childrens’ service organizations) throughout the metro St. Louis area. About 130 volunteers help with the collection and distribution of items.
Cash donations are especially needed to purchase food, staples, personal care items and specific items for clients. For information on making a donation or volunteering, visit www.caritasconnections.com.