by Colleen Jurkiewicz

During any normal July, the Knights of Columbus Holy Ghost Council 4648’s “Santa Maria” float has a pretty packed schedule. The wooden float, built by the council sometime in the 1980s to represent the largest of Christopher Columbus’ famous ships, is usually being towed up and down the streets of Brookfield, New Berlin and Pewaukee in various Fourth of July parades.

But this year, the pomp and pageantry was canceled, thanks to COVID-19. In its place was an ever-growing need for resources, both on the part of families and non-profit organizations feeling the pressure of a slumping economy.

So the Knights decided to put the Santa Maria to good use, hosting a “Fill the Boat” drive over the course of two weekends to restock the shelves at local food pantries.

“Given the fact that it’s not going to be in any parades, because everything’s been canceled, when our council was thinking of a community program to get involved in, the idea came up to use the float,” said Doug Wildes, a member of Council 4648. “Not only in Waukesha County, but across Wisconsin and across the nation, many, many neighborhoods and parishes have been overwhelmed with the need to provide food and support to the poor and needy.”

The drive was part of the national Knights of Columbus initiative “Leave No Neighbor Behind,” whereby Knights seek to serve the increasing needs of those in their community due to the COVID-19 crisis.

The Santa Maria first pulled into port at St. John Vianney in Brookfield on the weekend of July 11 and 12 to collect donations of non-perishable food. The following weekend, she dropped anchor at St. Dominic in Brookfield.

The St. Dominic food drive benefitted the FOOD Pantry of Waukesha County, which is open seven times each week and serves about 500 families each week. Their guests include children, elderly, the underemployed, individuals with disabilities or other health issues and the temporarily unemployed.

“Our numbers went way up in March, but now we’re kind of back to normal,” said Laura Amenda, food resource manager for the FOOD Pantry. “Everyone thinks Brookfield and Elm Grove (are affluent communities), but a lot of our clients are elderly people in an affluent neighborhood who have food insecurity.” Food insecurity is defined as a consistent lack of resources needed to purchase enough healthy food for an active lifestyle.

The donations from the weekend of July 11 and 12 were originally going to benefit the St. John Vianney Parish food pantry, which is operated by the parish’s St. Vincent de Paul chapter, but ultimately all 1,500 pounds of food donations from the drive was forwarded to the St. Josaphat Basilica’s St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry on the south side, with whom St. John Vianney has enjoyed a long partnership.

Patricia Crerar, a member of the St. Josaphat SVDP Society, said the donations were much-needed. The food pantry has been closed down since March, reopening only on July 1 for an hour every Wednesday. In those three weeks, she said, the pantry has served more than 300 individuals, and without donations such as those from the food drive, “we would have been out of food in two sessions.”

The area has been badly stricken with cases of COVID-19, on top of the already high poverty experienced in the zip code. Guests of the food pantry include many low-income families and up to 60 individuals who are considered “campers” or who have no address.

“It’s just incredible, the amount of people having complications during this time,” she said.

Ultimately, said Wildes, the drive far exceeded its collection goal — the Santa Maria hauled a bounty of 4,593 pounds of food.

“This was a very important event to help serve our community in charity, unity and fraternity — the three guiding principles of the Knights of Columbus,” he said.