Volunteers labor to help distribute food to underserved at St. John the Baptist
April 22, 2020 • Savanna Kearney

By Mark Udry

On a beautiful Friday afternoon, perfect for being outdoors, a group of volunteers gathers inside the community hall at St. John the Baptist Parish in Crescent City, a small town nestled close to the St. Johns River south of Palatka.

They have come together in this time of social distancing to lend a helping hand to those truly in need, friends, neighbors, and fellow parishioners. The volunteers are there to sort and distribute sacks of much-needed groceries, bottled water, gift cards and other items to the underserved in this near-isolated hamlet.

A panel truck, driven by Matt Schmitt, associate director of Catholic Charities regional office in Jacksonville, and accompanied by administrative assistant of the diocesan director of Catholic Charities, Ana Johnson, backs up to the rear of the building. They drove from St. Augustine, where earlier that day, another group of volunteers from the Catholic Charities St. Augustine office, including off-duty St. Johns County sheriff’s deputies, loaded the truck with food and water bound for St. John the Baptist Parish.

Of the 1,400 registered parishioners – from Central and South American countries such as Ecuador, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic – more than 75 percent speak only Spanish, and most live at or below the poverty level. Their occupations – when they are fortunate enough to find work – are the jobs nearly no one else wants; harvesting crops, construction and warehouse work, dishwashers and line cooks, housecleaners. But due to the coronavirus pandemic, even those jobs have dried up.

“There is nowhere else for the families that are receiving these groceries to turn to,” said Johnson. “The local food pantries have closed down, and other charity organizations are stretched to the breaking point. We are trying to utilize all of the resources at Catholic Charities to get help to the underserved where it’s needed.”

Pastor Heriberto Vergara gathers the volunteers together to lead them in prayer, and then they set to work. They wear masks and gloves for protection from the COVID-19 virus, and, for the next hour, the group forms a line, passing shrink-wrapped packs of bottled water and brown paper bags of foodstuffs to the main room of the community center. In the near-silence, 200 bags of groceries and 38 cases of bottled water form a spreading sea of relief. After the truck is unloaded, the volunteers add bags of rice, packs of chocolate, canned vegetables, pasta, and $15 gift cards to local grocery stores to supplement the other items in the bags.

Johnson said that it is this time of year – April, May and June – that they see an increase in underserved families needing aid, mostly because of the cyclical nature of the growing season for those who work in the fields. In the fields surrounding Crescent City, workers labor from sunup to past sundown, “leaf farming,” picking the greenery used in floral arrangements.

“With more people out of work, there is even less income for those who work the fields,” Johnson said. “And adding to the problem is that most of the volunteers who staff the food pantries are retirees, one of the most at-risk groups for COVID-19. So they are told to shelter in place to stay safe. But a lot of the volunteers here today have needed the same help themselves, and are paying it forward.”

Later, into the late afternoon and early evening, a line of vehicles ques up and snakes through the parish parking lot, some arriving a couple of hours early to ensure they can feed their families.

Each bag of groceries are packed with dry and canned goods and will last most families a week or so. Outstretched hands accept the bags and slowly exit the parking lot.

Thanks to their fellow parishioners and the staff and volunteers at Catholic Charities, 200 families have food for one more week in the coronavirus era.