By Katie Mills Giorgio
CEDAR RAPIDS — Many people are missing the ability to attend Mass in person these days.
Aside from affecting how Catholics worship, this situation has also had a large impact on local charitable organizations that depend on parishes for support.
Take Metro Catholic Outreach (MCO) in Cedar Rapids, for example. Supported by the area’s 11 Catholic parishes, MCO provides weekly food pantry distributions — with no income restrictions — as well as financial support and assistance to the area’s homeless population.
Mass celebrations were on hold for several months and continued social distancing procedures were put in place after buildings reopened. Even now, many parishioners are not visiting their churches. At St. Matthew Parish in Cedar Rapids, that means the drop box for donations to MCO’s food pantry had been sitting empty for weeks. But the need to restock the shelves at MCO remains the same, and Executive Director Kate Getty anticipates the need increasing soon.
“We’re seeing a lot more people who have never utilized social supports or social services before, whether those are people who have been furloughed recently, laid off completely, or people who are just nervous to go and get a few groceries at the grocery store,” said Getty. “And we are seeing people who we haven’t served for four or five years, from every age and demographic.” She noted they typically see an increase in families served through the food pantry once summer rolls around as kids are no longer in school. “So, we know an uptick is coming as some of those other pandemic resources are also removed.”
Knowing donations from his parish were down, Deacon Rich Wallace had an idea about how St. Matthew Parish could give a little boost to MCO during these challenging times.
He heard about the Mount Mercy University Alumni Association’s efforts to collect donations for healthcare workers living temporarily on Mount Mercy’s campus. To keep everyone safe, donations were being accepted on a drive-by basis. People pulled up, dropped off their donations, shared a smile, and went on their way. “I thought we should try something like that at St. Matthew.” Deacon Wallace reached out to the parish’s Social Justice Committee and Father Don Czapla and upon receiving a resounding yes to the idea, things were quickly organized.
A group of volunteers from the social justice committee and the St. Matthew Holy Name Society organized the event and collected donations during a two-hour time slot on Saturday morning, May 9. The crew of volunteers set up tents, developed a traffic pattern, and ushered cars through the parking lot as people streamed in to drop off donations. Deacon Wallace recalled asking a parishioner to help with directing traffic. “He wondered if we’d need traffic control and I said I had no idea, but we were going to leave it up to God,” Deacon Wallace said. “At one point we had a back-up of cars coming in off First Avenue and the volunteer and I looked at each other and laughed. We just had such a great response.”
Getty stopped by as cars pulled into the St. Matthew parking lot with donations. “This was just amazing to watch, and I think it was more successful than I ever imagined.”
In just two-hour’s time, more than 2,500 items were collected with equates to nearly 4,000 pounds or seven pallets worth. Plus, nearly $2,000 of cash donations were collected to help MCO purchase needed food. “The donations just kept coming. It’s took us two hours to get it all down to MCO and then it took two groups of volunteers to sort it all,” said Getty. “And it was things that we needed like canned fruit and pasta sauce and personal care items. It’s such a blessing to have a windfall of food like that when our shelves have been closer to empty.” Deacon Wallace said one gentleman pulled up with a whole pick-up truck load of canned goods he had purchased just for the drive-through food drive.
Getty thinks the event was so successful for several reasons. “It was well organized and well publicized,” she said. “But it also reminded people there’s need out there and it was a way for people to do it safely both from a volunteer standpoint but also from a donor standpoint whether that was something you already had in your home whether it was your drop off of a check. It was a visible yet still easy way for people to donate because they realized that even if Mass isn’t meeting, we still need those donations.”
Those who volunteered the morning of the drive-through food drive also delighted in seeing their fellow parishioners and friends. “We watched car after car stop by and people were saying hello. It was fast and easy but also so impactful,” said Getty. “It really brought MCO back to top-of-mind for lots of people. We get to see God’s work in action every day here at MCO and to see God’s work in our community like that morning in the St. Matthew parking lot, it was powerful, and it touches so many lives.”
Getty and Deacon Wallace have hoped that the efforts inspire other parishes to support organizations in creative ways during these challenging times. In fact, several other Cedar Rapids parishes have organized a drive for MCO, too.
“Everyone did their little piece to bring it all together,” said Deacon Wallace. “Now is a time when we know that there are a lot of people that are hurting and needing some additional assistance. People were saying as they were stopping to donate how much they appreciated that we were doing it and that it could bring us together. And they said they were just so happy to see us even if only from the car and not in our church pews.”
Cover photo: (L to r): Volunteers Chris Richards, Jaclyn Richmond, Deacon Rich Wallace, Gene Kopecky, Nan Wallace, Kate Getty, Rita Coates, and Gina Walsh during the food drive at St. Matthew Parish in Cedar Rapids May 9. (Photo by Mark and Jaclyn Richmond)