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Carlos Ddominguez prepares to enjoy breakfast at Assumption-Guadalupe’s parish hall Jan. 5 as secretary-receptionist and breakfast founder Zita Herrera helps at the counter. Photo by Joe Ruff/Staff.

Weekly breakfast is available for those in need

As a secretary-receptionist at Assumption-Guadalupe Parish in southeast Omaha, Zita Herrera sees great need at the doorstep every day: People hungry, sometimes lonely, seeking help with utilities and rent, often looking for work.

And at a parish in a low-income neighborhood that already offers help to people with a special fund for rent and utilities and other avenues of assistance, the former hotel cook thought parishioners might make another, hands-on effort for the community: merge food with fellowship and offer a free, hot breakfast once a week at the parish hall.

"I’ve noticed people need love, not only food," said Herrera, who along with the other volunteers also is a parishioner. "People who care about them."

About two dozen people are served at each 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. Thursday breakfast, arriving alone or in groups of two to four. Some are parishioners, others not. Some work odd jobs through the year, others work summer construction or landscaping and pick up labor-intensive work as it becomes available in the winter months. Still others are homeless and passing through.

"It’s OK, it’s good. Beautiful ladies, so helpful," said Augustine Balañ, a parishioner and landscaper during the summer who was enjoying breakfast on a bitter cold January morning. "Not much working today," Balañ said. "It’s too cold."

Carlos Ddominguez, who does not belong to the parish, said he appreciates the breakfast, particularly during the winter, when construction work dries up and other jobs are hard to find.

"It’s pretty good, excellent," he said of the food and company. "A meal here and a meal there is helpful. Especially when you don’t have money and it’s cold."

Herrera, who has worked for the parish for about 18 months, brought up the breakfast idea in the first few months of her employment. This month, parishioners serving the breakfasts celebrated their one-year anniversary.

And it’s become something of a family affair.

Herrera picks up her mother, Leonila Herrera, each Thursday. Together they prepare the eggs and sausage, potatoes and pancakes, coffee, juice, water and fruit. Herrera’s cousin, Lizet Herrera, who works in the parish faith formation office, and her sister, Nancy Herrera, often help.

Herrera’s children – Emanuel, 10, Emiliano, 9, and Osiris, 8, attend Ss. Peter and Paul School in Omaha and pitch in when they can. "Sometimes they help," Herrera said, laughing. "Most of all they like to come and eat."

Other parishioners and staff, including business manager Bill Berry, also help. Father Carl Zoucha, pastor, often stops by to visit and share a prayer.

"We see each other as family," Herrera said of the parish staff.

Father Zoucha said the breakfast has become an important part of the parish’s efforts to help others. It’s offered every week, the effort is widely shared as donations and fundraising by such groups as the Christian Family Movement, Knights of Columbus and Altar Society help fund the meals, and it is a response to the church’s call for works of mercy, he said.

"We understand ourselves as a simple, humble parish, and it’s a little, helpful offering we can do," Father Zoucha said. "It’s not trying to feed 200 to 300 people, but it does contribute overall to the welfare of the community.

"But it’s more than just physical sustenance," Father Zoucha said. "We know them by name and face. We encourage them to stay strong in tough times."

Ruth Rogel, one of the parish volunteers, said she is responding to the call of her friend and fellow parishioner, Herrera, who needed some help with the breakfast – and to the reality that everyone struggles at different times in their lives.

"She asked me and needs help," Rogel said. "I have time to help. And you never know when you might be the one in need."

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