By Paula J. Owen
Telegram & Gazette
LEOMINSTER — On Tuesday nights at the Boys & Girls Club in Leominster, Community Café volunteer Brad C. Hager said, there is no separation between the volunteers providing the meal and the homeless families who are bused there to enjoy it.
“You read so much negative about the families living in hotels, but here, they’re with us,” Mr. Hager said. The prayer volunteers start off each meal with “We’re all one here.”
Mr. Hager is one of around 50 volunteers from St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Leominster who have provided more than 650 meals on Tuesday nights since May 13 for homeless families living at the Motel 6, Days Inn and Orchard Street shelter in Leominster — moved there by the state because there is not enough shelter space for the families.
On Tuesday night, the group served spaghetti and meatballs, bread and green beans. Past meals included barbecued hamburgers and hot dogs, chicken piccata, macaroni and cheese with hot dogs and shepherd’s pie.
“They get food stamps, but they only have a small refrigerator at the hotel and no oven or stove,” Mr. Hager said. “Everything they eat has to be pre-made or microwavable.”
The group said that when they heard in January about the 120 children living in hotels in the city, they wanted to help. That number has risen to 190, St. Mark’s Rev. James O. Craig III said.
“It really came about when we first heard about the families in January,” Rev. Craig said. “At that time, 123 kids in the (Leominster) school system were living in hotels. People felt an urgency that we had to do something. We couldn’t find anyone around who has a handle on this situation.”
St. Mark’s contacted Leominster Public Schools Superintendent James Jolicoeur and Donata Martin, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of North Central Massachusetts, who joined with the church to get families out of the hotels for a restaurant-style meal and a place for the children to play once a week.
Older kids from the Boys & Girls Club and Leominster High School also volunteer at the meals, as well as volunteers from other area churches, and once a month the board of directors from the club put on the meal. Area restaurants donate food.
All volunteers agree to a criminal record check, Rev. Craig said.
Volunteer Terry L. Downing Sr., from St. Mark’s, said the group serves an average of 85 meals each Tuesday and delivers (or gives to the families to take back to their rooms) another 25 to 40 meals.
“Instead of bringing meals to them, we give them a break from the hotels,” Mr. Downing said. “It seems to be growing every week.”
Leominster High School junior Rafaela O. Lopes started a United Way Youth Venture Team called We Make a Difference, which holds quarterly birthday parties at the meals for the kids who have had birthdays. The 11-member team also plays with children outside after the meals.
“The kids here, all they want to do is go outside and run,” Rev. Craig said. “We meet with state and local officials to go over the situation. It is unbelievable they have no place to go. We all feel a sense of urgency to help. We celebrate when a family has found an apartment, but that is only one or two families. The rest don’t have anything.”
Other area churches donate soap, laundry bags with detergent, toiletries, other personal items, and diapers, he said. Donations can be dropped off at the club on Lindell Avenue on Tuesday evenings for families to take back to the hotels, he said.
Gina A. Wironen, administrator for Leominster Public Schools parent information center, is often the first contact the families have when they move to a Leominster hotel.
“We make sure they have the appropriate placement to receive any services they need,” Ms. Wironen said. “We are the first contact for a lot of the families.”
The center provides the children with school supplies, backpacks, books, winter coats and other needed items, she said, and connects them with community resources that they need.
Alexyss D. Velez, a 16-year-old from Methuen whom the state moved to a Leominster hotel with her mother in October, said she attends the meals to get away from the hotel.
She learned of the Leominster schools’ Summer Youth Employment program at the Community Café and starts her first job working with children this week.
“My mom is really struggling,” she said; her mother became disabled after a car accident. “It will be good to help her with money and stuff. She can’t work, so me getting a job helps more.
“We take what people give us and appreciate what people are doing here,” she added. “In Methuen, there are not a lot of people who help the homeless. In Leominster, there are a lot of people who help a lot.”
For more information or to volunteer, call (978) 537-3560.