Students at St. Anthony participated in the Blessing Bag Project in January to provide needed supplies for homeless people. (Submitted photo)
Six years ago, St. Anthony High School teacher Kurt Keidl was looking for a way to incorporate a social justice class into the school’s theology curriculum.
He wanted to make sure that his students understood the importance of social justice — how it doesn’t take place in a classroom, but only begins there as they study the theory of justice and how it was a cornerstone of Christ’s commands to us as a Church. “It is of the utmost importance to me that they know that we need to do our charity and justice out in the community,” he said.
Keidl thought of all the different ways he could get his students out into the community, and begin a lifetime of involvement in a crusade of love. That’s how the school created a course in the second semester of the class to coincide with January’s Poverty Awareness Month, a time designated by the US Council of Catholic Bishops to help the Church turn its face toward a rampant problem. In the class, they examine some of the causes and effects of poverty, and try to come up with a response to it locally, answering the question, “What can we do to help?”
That’s where they came up with the Blessing Bag Project.
The next challenge, though, was how to get donations to fill a few hundred bags. “St. Anthony School is a choice school,” Keidl said. “So most of the families are very low income. Asking and expecting them to supply all the items needed to fill the bags would have been an impossibility.” Keidl is a secular Franciscan; so he opened the opportunity up to the St. Josaphat fraternity of the secular Franciscan order. They responded enthusiastically with donations of stocking caps, gloves, hand warmers, deodorant, shampoo, toothpaste, mouthwash, soap, ibuprofen, Chapstick, razors, snack bars, bus passes, phone cards, restaurant gift cards, tissues, and more items that helped the most bitter part of winter feel a little less harsh to those who have to face the elements alone.
“It felt like the perfect idea coming together at the right time. January is so cold here and it’s a time when the homeless are more vulnerable than ever,” Keidl said.
Their goal was at least 25 items in a bag and, as the years went on, the fraternity couldn’t come up with enough alone, so Keidl asked St. Anthony school if they could have a small budget in the theology department for the bags, and the school approved it. In the last few years, the Franciscan Federation, a local network of the various members of the Franciscan spiritual family, the Franciscan sisters, friars, and other secular fraternities, began to donate, providing the bulk of the spiritual items for the bags. It was important to the students that the homeless were given the chance to pray with rosaries, and be comforted by prayer cards. They wanted them to have something for their soul as well as their physical bodies.
“It is humbling and inspiring to see how the children take ownership of the project,” Keidl said.
The assembling of the bags is a big community event. The students come together excited to organize the bags so they’re visually attractive. Every student writes a personal note, letting the person who receives it know that they’re being prayed for and thought of, that they’re cared about deeply. After the bags are packed, they’re piled in the middle of the classroom floor, and the students and Keidl stand around the bags and bless them together.
Then Keidl commissions the students to go out and distribute each bag. “They have the task of finding a homeless person they can engage with,” Keidl said. Some students know exactly who they want to give their bag to, while others don’t; so they get a list of all the local shelters in the area. Part of the project is for them to make a real connection, to see that the homeless are people with names and stories, who are deserving of respect and love.
Through the reflection that each student writes after they’ve handed out their bag, and their attitude in the classroom in the weeks after, Keidl can tell that they’ve been changed. They tangibly see how showing compassion makes a difference. They see value in a human life that most simply look through in an effort not to notice.
One student wrote, “He looked at me with his eyes wide open and asked if I was serious. His eyes watered, and so did mine to see how happy he got. He immediately took out the hat and put it on, and he did the same with the gloves, as well. He got up to shake my hand and then he asked if he could give me a hug and I said, ‘Yes,’ and he hugged me and said thank you once again. I also gave him some granola bars. He ate one once I got in the car. And as I drove away, he waved bye. It felt really good to see him smile. The smile on his face told me I made his night. I think this is something we should be doing even outside of a class project. These people actually really need the help.”