Our Lady of the Hills groups distribute food at park

Miscellany Photos/Christina Lee Knauss: Redemptorist Father Mike Koncik and Harold Cecil work with another volunteer to pack bags of food to give to those in need.

COLUMBIA—For years now, Finlay Park has been a microcosm showing two sides of life — a scenic outdoor space for community outings and a central gathering point for the city’s large homeless population, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Thanks to a dedicated group of men from Our Lady of the Hills Church, now the park is also a place to witness Christian kindness. 

Since the pandemic started back in March, volunteers from the parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Society and Knights of Columbus have prepared and served more than 1,700 bagged meals to homeless men and women who congregate at the park. 

On Fridays and Sundays, the group drops off 50 meal bags that contain three sandwiches, three pieces of fruit, three bottles of water and a pack of snack crackers. It’s simple fare, but enough to sustain a person in need for a day. 

Before the pandemic, volunteers with St. Vincent de Paul served regular meals for the homeless at St. Martin de Porres Church in the Waverly community. However, in March, city bans against indoor gatherings ended that, and they quickly realized they needed to find a new way to help. 

The pandemic lockdown disrupted many of the services Columbia’s homeless relied on, and also drove them away from popular gathering spots such as the city library. 

A woman carries groceries that she received from Our Lady of the Hills Church in Finlay Park in Columbia.

Joseph Charland, a member of Our Lady of Hills who works with both ministries, said at first he and other volunteers would drive from place to place to hand out meals. Occasionally they were stopped by police officers who had to enforce orders against large gatherings. They also dropped off meals at Oliver Gospel Mission on Assembly Street. 

Then, Charland said, some people they served told them that Finlay Park was the main place where homeless people were regularly spending their days. They decided to start dropping off meals there and immediately knew they had made the right decision. What started as a regular crowd of only 20 to 30 people quickly grew to 50, and one day a week quickly became two. 

Now Charland leads the group that serves on Tuesdays, and volunteer Bill Simonica handles Sundays. 

The entire effort is funded by a parishioner who wishes to remain anonymous, Charland said. The man had helped out at one of the St. Martin de Porres meals and was moved by what he saw. 

“If you’ve never worked with people who live on the street, it can be quite a shocking and eye-opening experience, and that’s what happened to him,” Charland said. “He just fell in love with the community of people we serve, and when he found out about the meals at Finlay Park, he said he wanted to pay for the whole thing.” 

The average weekly cost for the food is about $250, entirely covered by the anonymous donor. Charland said the man also helps with additional supplies, such as toothbrushes, toothpaste and dental floss that the group hands out every three months. 

Charland and the volunteers get to know many of the people they serve. One woman recognized him recently from his previous work serving Christmas meals at the Basilica of St. Peter. 

Some of the park regulars help the men unload the bags and keep watch over the food once the volunteers leave so that people only take what they need.

As the pandemic goes on, the volunteers are also seeing more and more people in need. The food goes not only to people who have been living on the streets for years, but also individuals and families who show up in the parking lot. Some of them are living out of their cars. 

“By the grace of God, we’re able to help with what we can,” Charland said. “This isn’t a lot, but we’re doing some good and we’re hoping to do more if it’s needed. We also hope to inspire other groups to help out the homeless. A lot of times, if you’re not out here seeing what we see, it’s easy to overlook what these people are going through.”