The bags are relatively simple. They contain a pair of socks, a sandwich, a bottle of water, snacks, a sweatshirt, scarf, hat and gloves, and personal hygiene supplies like toothpaste and wipes, plus an information pamphlet on food assistance and a prayer card.
Judging by the Christmas morning-like reactions of the homeless men and women who receive the care packages—created and handed out by the JoyJ Initiative—their value is far greater than the cost of the items inside.
“You would think you are giving them a million dollars,” said Louise Ulman, vice president of JoyJ and one of the three founding members. The name JoyJ stands for ‘The Joy of Jesus.’
Some 75 volunteers gathered at Blessed Sacrament in Manhattan Nov. 19 to pack and hand out 140 bags.
“Some cry, some kiss your hands, other bless you,” she said. JoyJ began in the Manhattan parish four years ago, and was incorporated as a non-profit in 2014.
It also operates out of the following Manhattan parishes: Holy Name of Jesus-Vincent DePaul Society, St. Gregory the Great-Vincent DePaul Society, Our Lady of Good Counsel and St. Thomas More, Holy Innocents, Sacred Heart and St. Anthony of Padua.
It is expanding in the United States and in other countries, including Colombia and the Philippines. “People start with us, and when they move, they bring it and it grows,” Mrs. Ulman said.
About 1,500 volunteers are now taking part in JoyJ. Brian Kelly, a parishioner of Blessed Sacrament, is the president of JoyJ.
Volunteers at each parish spend one Saturday morning every two months filling and delivering the bags.
“Groups will travel to places like Penn Station, 125th Street, Port Authority, Grand Central, in the back of churches, wherever there is a congregation of homelessness,” Mrs. Ulman said. “We know where to go.” The outreach ends when everything is distributed.
One of the key aspects of the ministry is human contact and connection, Mrs. Ulman said. “The goal of JoyJ is to honor Jesus’ commandment to ‘Love one another as I have loved you,’” she said. “It is with this in mind that we approach each person, when we look them in the eye, and shake their hand. We talk and weave them back into society and let them know that we care.”
Perry Britz, a Blessed Sacrament parishioner, heard Mrs. Ulman speak about JoyJ at Mass three years ago at Christmastime. “The way she told her story about the need to go out and help others was so moving that I felt the need to get involved. It was something that I wanted to feel. I wanted to give back to those in need,” Britz said.
Britz is now a seasoned volunteer and group leader. “There are really two types of joy,” he said. “There is the joy you see in the person who receives the green bag with the necessities and essentials they don’t have. And there is the joy you feel when you give the bag and are able to help someone and know that going out and spending that time is worth it.”
He told CNY that small acts of kindness make a huge difference. “Homelessness does go on and happen on a daily basis. People do have to deal with this, and anyone can make an impact on someone’s life.
“Anyone can come out and participate in the outreaches in some way, whether you are 1 or 100.”
Peggy and Alan Dubner of Blessed Sacrament are in charge of food purchases and inventory. Michele Marotta, the chairman of JoyJ, led their first outreach experience, at Port Authority.
When they were told to “go,” Mrs. Dubner hesitated. “I have to admit I was a little intimidated and unsure of how to approach someone without making them feel uncomfortable,” she said.
The first person they approached was a woman in her 40s.
“I said, ‘Hi, I was wondering if you’d be able to use a few new things?’ This was a great way to start the conversation. She was not shy and she asked what we had—so we went through the bag together,” Mrs. Dubner said.
“She was thrilled with all of the items and just happy to speak with us in general,” Mrs. Dubner added.
“She said she felt blessed that we chose her of all the people in Port Authority. After that, my husband and I felt overcome with so many emotions—gratitude for our own lives and what we had, but mostly we were touched realizing that ‘it is in giving that we receive.’”
“After that, we were hooked,” she said.