Parishioners donate backpacks to Portland's homeless

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PORTLAND — Parishioners at Our Lady of Hope Parish, which includes two downtown churches, banded together recently to provide a little holiday cheer for those who regularly rely on the St. Vincent de Paul Soup Kitchen.

At a special Christmas luncheon held Dec. 16, clients of the soup kitchen received new or gently used backpacks donated by churchgoers. Packed inside were blankets, gloves, essential toiletries and warm socks.

Jesse Senore, president of the soup kitchen, said the parishioners provided about 130 backpacks this year, which “means everything” to the mostly homeless clients who go to the soup kitchen on a daily basis.

“These backpacks (hold) their whole life,” Senore said.

He said the soup kitchen serves lunch to between 150 and 160 people per day and probably 65 to 70 percent of those are homeless. “We have an open door policy so we don’t ask, but I would say the majority are homeless,” Senore said.

Dave Reese, a churchgoer, who is also a regular volunteer at the soup kitchen and a member of the Knights of Columbus, started the backpack tradition more than 15 years ago.

“I hope (the backpack collection) will inspire others to be spontaneously generous, compassionate, kind and caring in these difficult times,” Reese said recently. “I’ve been at the soup kitchen for almost 20 years, and it’s a place where you realize that it is far, far, better to give than to receive.”

He said that clients at the soup kitchen are grateful for everything they are given.

“You see it in their faces and hear it in their voices. A sense of ease is seen for those who are truly struggling, even if it’s just for a moment.”

Reese first got the idea to donate backpacks to diners who frequent the soup kitchen after witnessing what he called “a heartbreaking scene.”

“A patron carrying a cardboard box walked in with rain-soaked clothes. In the box were all of his possessions,” Reese remembered. “As he was about to sit down for his meal, he lifted the box to get it over the table and, as he did, the soaked cardboard ripped, split and the bottom fell out of it.”

Reese said volunteers at the soup kitchen, “scurried to find plastic bags and another box to assist” but at the same time, he remembers thinking, “What could be done to prevent this from happening again?”

“In a flash of spirit or intuition, the word backpacks came to mind,” he recalled, and ever since Reese and his fellow Knights have dedicated themselves to the cause.

“As I see people on the street with backpacks on their shoulders, and when I see children in tow with their less fortunate parents or guardians, I think to myself that their burdens are eased a bit more this day because they know that their community does care,” Reese said.

In all, according to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, the backpack project has helped more than 1,000 people over the years.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or Follow Kate on Twitter @KirishCollins.

Bishop Robert P. Deeley, center, leader of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, visited the St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen recently. On Dec. 16, clients at the soup kitchen received backpacks donated by parishioners that included a blanket, a pair of gloves and toiletries.