Instead of a hug, Lisa Kelly, right, a volunteer with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Omaha, offers an elbow bump to Rita at a stop near Assumption-Guadalupe Parish in south Omaha. Rita took a bag filled with lunches for her neighbors. SUSAN SZALEWSKI/STAFF

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For van driver, almsgiving is personal: meeting, connecting, giving of one’s self

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” – Mt 25:35-36

It’s 10:50 a.m. on a Friday.

Time for Lisa Kelly to climb into an aging white Ford E-150 van outside the former Holy Family Church in Omaha, now the Holy Family Community Center of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Omaha.

Kelly literally climbs as she enters through the passenger door and crosses over into the driver seat, because the van key doesn’t work on the driver’s door.

She starts the engine, backs out of a driveway and heads off on the hourlong lunchtime commute she makes on Thursdays and Fridays, usually with her husband, Tom.

The Kellys, members of St. John Parish on the Creighton University campus, are among about eight volunteers who drive sack lunches to those in need in east Omaha. It’s part of a food and clothing apostolate that St. Vincent de Paul has continued after Holy Family’s closing last year.

For 30 years, every weekday, volunteers have helped anyone who shows up looking for warm clothes or food to go.

That apostolate, whether through volunteering or donating, answers the Church’s call to carry out the corporal works of mercy of feeding the hungry and giving alms to the poor.

But to the Kellys, delivering the food also is about empowering those they serve through a system that lets neighbors help neighbors.

The work is about getting to know the people they serve, forming relationships with them, earning trust and receiving unexpected rewards in return.

And particularly for the Kellys, it’s getting back to their roots, to what brought them together in the first place. They met while helping the homeless when both were students at the University of Notre Dame.

“Our first five dates were to a homeless shelter,” Kelly says with a laugh as she is interviewed while delivering lunches Feb. 26.

‘AN EASY HOUR’

She’s been busy as a student during the pandemic, studying from home for a master’s degree in Christian spirituality at Creighton. Tom Kelly is a theology professor at the university.

 They began volunteering with St. Vincent de Paul Omaha a year ago, when pandemic restrictions began and older volunteers stepped aside because of health concerns.

Lisa Kelly said she’s stayed home a lot during the pandemic and enjoys volunteering as a chance to get out.

 “It’s an easy hour of volunteering,” she says as she drives. 

Before she arrived that day at the Holy Family Community Center, other volunteers and St. Vincent de Paul staff had been busy. Volunteers had assembled sandwiches and placed them into paper or plastic bags with some dried fruit and nuts and a treat of a cookie or rice crispy bar.

Bologna, cheese and mayonnaise are typical sandwich ingredients. But sometimes ham is substituted when it can be purchased at a good price.

Kelly said she loves it when she sees homemade cookies or other treats in the meals.

“Someone cared enough to make homemade food,” she says. “You can’t underestimate how far that goes” with the recipients of the lunches.

HELPING THE HOMELESS AND MORE

Some sack lunches had already been distributed at a door on the west side of the community center, at 17th and Izard Streets, north of downtown. People line up for the food, including some of the homeless from the nearby Siena Francis House.

Other sack lunches are delivered by volunteers like Kelly, who typically travel in pairs.

The meals help the homeless and those who are perilously close to becoming homeless.

“They might have to choose between heat and food,” she says.

Her route includes stops at a parking lot at St. Peter Church, another outside a low-income housing complex near Hanscom Park, and a third near Assumption- Guadalupe Church.

The cargo van carries about 110 lunches, enough for about 30 at each stop, plus some for people who might need a meal later or for people looking for handouts along the route.

Kelly knows that many of those she serves probably didn’t eat breakfast and might not get supper. On Fridays, she might hand someone four or five sacked meals to help that person get through the weekend.

DELIVERY FOR NEIGHBORS

At the first stop, St. Peter, two regular helpers are among those outside waiting for the St. Vincent de Paul van.

There’s Kenny, “a salt-of-the-earth community organizer,” according to Kelly, who makes sure no one goes hungry at the nearby Jackson Tower, the low-income apartment building where he lives.

John, another volunteer, typically takes a bag of 10 lunches to the elderly and disabled residents of his apartment building, also nearby.

“Hello, hello, good people!” Kelly shouts as she jumps out from the van. At each stop she takes time to visit with her helpers and those she serves.

John’s and Kenny’s diligent efforts save others from having to go to the parking lot for food, including the elderly and disabled.

“There’s enough challenges for these people,” Kelly says. “Kenny and John know their buildings and their communities.”

Kenny is ready with a cart to carry about 30 lunches to residents of his building. John refills his bag for the day.

They stand ready to help each weekday.

“God bless them,” Kelly says.

Lisa Kelly, right, visits with Robert, a resident of Park South Tower in Omaha, before he takes a supply of donated sack lunches to his neighbors in the low-income apartment building. Robert offered to help with the sack lunch program when he moved into the building about a year ago. SUSAN SZALEWSKI/STAFF

Lisa Kelly, right, visits with Robert, a resident of Park South Tower in Omaha, before he takes a supply of donated sack lunches to his neighbors in the low-income apartment building. Robert offered to help with the sack lunch program when he moved into the building about a year ago. SUSAN SZALEWSKI/STAFF

MAKE GIVING PERSONAL

Relationships – like the ones she tries to foster with John and Kenny, and those between the men and their neighbors – are key to the ministry and are what St. Vincent de Paul is all about, she said.

Feeding the hungry becomes much more personal, changing from “helping the poor” to “helping Kenny,” for example.

By taking the time to talk and through repeated encounters, she learns about people and their needs. They learn to trust, so they can open up to her about their needs.

After chatting a few minutes with her friends, Kelly climbs back into the van for the next stop, about a mile away outside Park North and Park South Towers.

Robert, a resident, is waiting on the sidewalk across the street, on the east side of Hanscom Park.

The weather isn’t too cold this day, but Robert is faithful in any weather, ready to carry a crate full of lunches to others at the apartments.

Kelly thanks him for what he does, but he shrugs it off.

“I’m not doing anything except listening to the radio,” Robert says.

Robert takes a crate full of lunches to deliver to neighbors at his apartment building near Hanscom Park in Omaha. SUSAN SZALEWSKI/STAFF

Robert takes a crate full of lunches to deliver to neighbors at his apartment building near Hanscom Park in Omaha. SUSAN SZALEWSKI/STAFF

They talk about the shift to nicer weather. Kelly asks him how the towers’ residents are faring with COVID-19. OK, he responds.

Soon it’s time for Kelly to head toward Assumption-Guadalupe Parish in south Omaha.

RECEIVING IN RETURN

On the way, Kelly talks about how Robert gave her and her husband Christmas cards with a little gift tucked inside: two postage-paid postcards.

It’s a small gift, but a big gesture, she says, getting teary.

“I shouldn’t get choked up about it,” Kelly said. “But that’s what he could do,” truly a gift from his heart.

There’s no big housing complexes in the area of Assumption-Guadalupe, “but I do have some regulars,” Kelly says. “I worry about them if I don’t see them.”

“It’s hard when you go home at night and think about them,” she says. A recent cold snap and the coronavirus pandemic “add another layer” to her worries.

As Kelly pulls up to her stop, Salvador and Rita are waiting.

Kelly speaks Spanish to Salvador. She says her Spanish isn’t perfect. But it’s enough to communicate with Salvador, who cannot speak. He responds by gesturing.

He asks for a blanket. She promises that one will be delivered Monday.

PAYCHECK TO PAYCHECK

Kelly asks Rita where she lives. Rita points to a nearby building and tells Kelly that she lives above a vacuum store.

Kelly asks Rita if she would like to take some extra sack lunches to share with her neighbors, and Rita gladly offers to help.

A man riding a bicycle also accepts a lunch. He always rides a bike, Kelly says, even when it’s snowy. He’s a roofer whose work is seasonal. People like him often live paycheck to paycheck, she says.

In less than an hour since she started, the energetic volunteer jumps back into the van for one extra stop, because she has some leftovers. It’s just a few blocks away, where immigrant laborers gather, looking for work.

The laborers gratefully accept a free lunch. Kelly offers some COVID-19 masks to those who aren’t wearing them. A supply was handy in the back of the van.

Driving back to the St. Vincent de Paul center, she pulls over and hands a lunch to a man soliciting roadside donations. The last time she saw him, he was without a shirt in the cold. But at least today he had a coat on.

Kelly, a mother of four adult children, said she thinks about the beggar, and all those she serves, as a mother would. “All of these people are somebody’s kids,” she says. “I can’t help but see them as a mother.”

GRATEFUL

Once back at the Holy Family center, she heads for a supply room and picks out a blanket for Salvador, a thick blue and white comforter she labels for him. She places it in the van for the next trip, texting Monday’s scheduled driver.

When her job is done for the day, Kelly says, she’s grateful. “Thank God St. Vincent de Paul is there.”

The organization fills needs that other agencies don’t, she says, by simply asking, “What can we do?”

St. Vincent de Paul doesn’t do everything perfectly, Kelly says, but when it can’t provide a particular service, the charity will refer people to another organization or person that can.

“I feel like St. Vincent de Paul is such a terrific focus for almsgiving,” she says. “It’s an organization where you can give of yourself.”

Its focus on relationships, within parishes and throughout the city, allows volunteers to give of their whole being, she says. “It’s a place to give of yourself.”