Lisa Kochanowski
Assistant Editor/Reporter
July 8, 2023 // Diocese

Helping Neighbors in Times of Need at St. Joseph, Mishawaka

Lisa Kochanowski
Assistant Editor/Reporter

Imagine waking up each day impoverished, destitute, hungry, sick, not being able to see a doctor, fearing the future, and feeling powerless. Those are some of the anxieties felt by people in need. The St. Vincent de Paul Society Chapter at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Mishawaka strives to eliminate that suffering through their community outreach projects.

The group was founded in 1961 and has had a tremendous impact on the community as a result of their strong faithful and loyal members and volunteers.

“The core of our work lies in seeking out the forgotten poor and bringing a voice to their struggles. We participate and host a range of projects, ensuring the dignity of those we serve,” said Chapter President Travis Klosinski.

Photos by Lisa Kochanowski
St. Joseph Catholic Church in Mishawaka’s St. Vincent de Paul Society Chapter Vice President Eric Heath and President Travis Klosinski help with the community garden on the church property. The garden was created as a way to supplement the food pantry with healthy, fresh vegetable options for the community.

Chapter Co-Vice President Eric Heath said he has been part of the group for a little more than nine months and appreciates the opportunity to give back to the community. “My wife and I have been interested in getting involved in outreach to the poor and last September we met Travis at a Ministry Fair,” recalled Heath, who shares the title of vice president with his wife. “His vision lined up with our ideas and practice of corporal works of mercy and this was something we could be part of with our kids.”

Tom and Sherry Klosinski have been with the group for about a year. “We felt a need to serve and started with Our Lady of the Road,” said Tom. “We never realized the magnitude of the need. More people doing small things amount to so much. The more hands the better.”

Known as Vincentians, the cornerstone of their work is performing home visits. They distribute around 1,300 pounds of food per month through in-person deliveries.

“The goal is to create a relationship with those we meet and to hear their stories,” noted Tom. “We go once a month to Our Lady of the Road to prepare a wonderful breakfast for the folks that come through those doors. We started a garden and sent out seeds to the parish to create a Mini-Farm project to generate more nutritious and less processed food for our neighbors in need in our direct neighborhood. We have also hosted talks on Catholic Social Teaching that featured priests, nuns, and professors from Notre Dame. We hosted them on a podcast titled “Voices for the Poor” which is geared towards informing the community about people and activities happening locally and to educate others on the systems around poverty.”

A new venture for the group was the creation of a community garden. According to Heath, at one of their monthly meetings, his wife mentioned the idea of creating a community garden that could provide fresh vegetables for the pantry. It was an opportunity for the group to provide a healthy option for home visits and include a wider demographic of the church community who is interested in gardening. Volunteer Tim Callan spearheaded the effort to build three raised beds on the church property and Vincentians and parishioners planted tomatoes, green beans, zucchini, onions, and various colors of peppers.

As an option to help from their own backyard, parishioners were invited to take one of the 100 packets of free vegetable seeds offered after one of the Masses, plant them in their own yards, and then bring freshly grown food to the pantry. They have already had a family bring heads of home-grown lettuce to share.

“I’m excited to see where it goes,” said Heath about the community garden. “Part of feeding the hungry is to feed people with good, nourishing food. Hopefully, we will be able to expand this in the future.”

According to Heath, some other projects by the chapter were partnering with the church choir to go caroling at area nursing homes during the holidays, holding a cemetery and area cleanup event, and writing letters to inmates.

Volunteer participation has been an obstacle for the group.

“While the goal is to serve those in need, it’s really about community building. The approach has been to hopefully show other Catholics what it looks like to put faith into action and to fight against that tendency to create an ancillary bubble from a tumultuous world. We are members of the community, and we are called to engage with it on a level and in places that many won’t. We do this because we encounter Christ in these endeavors and that is why we can do those things others would prefer to avoid,” said Klosinski. “Instilling that has been difficult. These topics often fade quickly from our minds, though we feel that it would be nice to help in some way or somewhere, we have a lot going on ourselves. It is tough to find how to drive that engagement to cross the line from bystander to volunteer.”

The group is brainstorming upcoming plans and discussing projects that target systemic issues and policy.

“We have talked about actions that bring dignity, for instance getting more covered bus stops for people in the community. It’s very tough to go to a job after standing in the rain for 25 minutes waiting for a bus,” shared Klosinski “We also are continually working towards a more balanced and healthy food pantry, one that can deliver fresh produce. We changed how we looked at our emergency food distribution to be one that is more of a fiscal band-aid that can hopefully alleviate $100 to $200 in grocery costs to be applied towards a utility bill or repairs, or a co-pay. It all adds up.”

The group desires to develop programs and strategies to build up someone struggling and foster self-sufficiency and guidance.

“There are many people that just need someone in their corner with guidance and directives, often those receiving the advice take it upon themselves to complete,” said Klosinski. “We are also discussing how to increase inter-parish cooperation to create a more powerful force in the community. Many hands make light work and there’s nothing heavier than red tape. Having a coalition can go a long way in advocating policy.”

Klosinski hopes all members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society feel empowered and unified in their outreach efforts.

“I find it difficult to meet people after Mass, so St. Vincent became a way to interact with people working to bring charity and love to the neediest. I have formed a great support network with my fellow Vincentians along with fellowship, something many of us have forgotten the feeling of,” said Klosinski. “I hope they feel courage and the willingness to get around the bystander effect. I want them to look back and see how much they have grown. When they see someone in need, they act with compassion to help however they can. I want us to see Catholicism engaging with the secular, trying to treat the wounds of our modern world. I want them to take responsibility for their town and those in it.”

Klosinski wants all those served by the Vincentians to feel loved and understood. Recipients are not judged in any way and the volunteers are deeply vested in the development and prosperity of the communities they serve.

“I hope we can help build their lives up. So often we say folks need to use their bootstraps and this is a judgment that permeates the hearts of those in need. I want them to know that we see they have worn their boots down with 60 hours a week of labor many would hike their noses at,” noted Klosinski. “Above all, love. We, as humans, need to feel seen and need to feel supported. Poverty brings traumas that can’t be solved overnight; we can’t expect to solve it with one box of food, but they can at least know we are here.”

Getting involved with the main organization involves connecting with the St. Joseph County office and the Mishawaka conference is always looking to expand their volunteer base and can be reached at [email protected]. Klosinski recommends listening to the Mishawaka group’s podcast “Voices for The Poor” on Spotify or Apple Podcasts to get a sense of the Catholic social teaching that defines their work along with sharing background information on policies and programs that are in place.

“If someone is interested in helping but doesn’t know where, this is a great place to start. We emphasize that you won’t go out alone and you will almost always be with a group. It is a great introduction to this type of work. I feel as if an entire side of Catholicism has been opened up to explore because of this and encourage everyone to do one thing, whether it is a meeting or bringing food, picking up trash, or emailing a representative. Find your niche and let The Holy Spirit guide you,” said Klosinski.

Making an impact is possible. It just takes one simple step and a slight change to one’s mindset to make a difference.

“I see so many people on Sunday and think if we all just did one thing together, one small thing as one, what a force for good we could be. We need people to keep these issues top of mind and contribute in some way, even if it is bringing one can of soup a week to Mass, it all makes an impact. We have to carve a part of our life towards bettering our community, no man is an island, just as we do for prayer. Small actions on a small scale make a big difference,” shared Klosinski.

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