YORKTOWN, N.Y. – There are many charities that help the homeless by donating food, clothing or supplies, but what MaryAnne Harkins believes sets her group of volunteers apart are their interactions with the population they serve.
For the last two years, Harkins and her husband, Mike, Somers residents, have coordinated the Midnight Run chapter out of St. Patrick’s Church in Yorktown Heights. The chapter was previously led by Ellen Schultz for two decades, before she passed the baton.
Midnight Run is a Dobbs Ferry-based organization that distributes food, clothing, blankets and personal care items to the homeless poor on the streets of New York City. Many area synagogues, churches and high schools have Midnight Run chapters.
“Our main purpose is to feed the hungry and help the homeless, but we’re also trying to bring that human touch,” Harkins said.
Her chapter typically does five runs a year between October and June. Harkins and her crew of about a dozen volunteers are assigned several stops in New York City, where homeless people will be waiting for them between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.
With two Penske trucks and a Midnight Run van, Harkins and her team distribute 320 bagged lunches (two per person) and 100 toiletry kits every trip. Depending on the season, they also hand out socks, underwear, boots, sneakers, jeans, sweatpants, hoodies, hats, coats and gloves.
“We come home with nothing,” Harkins said. “The trucks are empty.”
The bagged lunches contain sandwiches, juice boxes, boiled eggs, chips, pudding cups and condiments. Yorktown resident John Mifsud annually donates about 150 pounds of Boar’s Head cold cuts for the sandwiches through his distribution company, Constitution Provisions. His family has been distributing Boar’s Head products since 1980, when his father worked in Manhattan. It was during that time when Mifsud became familiar with the city’s homeless problem. Often times, he said, the only thing that separates a homeless person from a successful person is a little bit of luck.
“There are a lot of people who have not had the luxury that we have, and unfortunately a lot of them fall by the wayside,” he said. “Since I was 7, I’ve been interacting and dealing with these people with my family business. We’re all human, that’s what it comes down to, and it’s a very humanizing experience for everyone.”
A member of Midnight Run, he occasionally took his Boar’s Head truck down to the city with the St. Patrick’s crew. Now a father to two young children, Mifsud finds it difficult to make the quarterly trip. Instead, he is mostly involved with doing the leg work: slicing the cold cuts and preparing the lunches.
Like Harkins, he said the most important thing Midnight Run provides to the homeless is compassion.
“There was one time we ran out of jackets on the run and I took the jacket off myself and gave it to one of the individuals,” he said. “It’s not so much about giving stuff to people, it’s about the connection. Getting them feeling again. There’s nothing greater than that. Just making them feel like a human again, because they get neglected and beaten down. A lot of people don’t show compassion, a lot of people don’t show understanding.”
The care packages are put together at the church prior to a run, with anywhere from 35 to 85 volunteers forming an assembly line. Many of these volunteers are local high school students looking to fulfill confirmation community service hours.
“I’ve had kids tell me, ‘I used to walk past homeless people and try not to look them in the eye. And now that I’ve gone on a run, I’ve realized these people are like me,’” Harkins said. “It really changes the way you think about the world.”
The younger volunteers of Midnight Run also make baked goods and write notes that are included in the bagged lunches.
“We have a station where people can write cards—little notes—and then we put them in the lunch bag, so they get a little human touch with the lunch,” Harkins said.
Harkins’ son, Jerome, is one of those young volunteers who helps out on a regular basis. Jerome said his family took over leading the Midnight Run after he spotted a flyer outside of church one day two years ago.
Prior to getting involved with Midnight Run, Jerome said he never had a close experience with the homeless. Though his group does not have the means to eradicate homelessness, he is confident the volunteers are filling a much-needed void. He estimated there are about 20 high school students who help on a regular basis.
“We know we’re not big enough to do that (solve the homeless problem), but what we can do is provide a little bit of fellowship,” Jerome said. “I always thought of them as a number, a percentage. But getting to talk to them, you see they’re just like us.”
One moment that especially sticks with Jerome is a recent discussion he had with a homeless person who was working four jobs and eventually was able to afford an apartment. A common misconception about the homeless, he said, is that they are not trying to better their situation.
“That’s not something you hear about too often,” Jerome said. “It’s not on the news or anything.”
Much of the church’s Midnight Run food, clothing and supplies are donated by St. Patrick’s parishioners. The donations are stored downstairs in the stone church, and keeping the closets organized can sometimes feel like a full-time job, Harkins said. Unloading the donations also became such a laborious task that a local teen, to earn his Eagle Scout rank, renovated the closet for efficiency by removing all permanent shelves and replacing them with rolling racks.
The next Midnight Run will take place Saturday, June 17. While Harkins is not in need of volunteers to help pack, she is seeking volunteers to make the trip to New York City and hand out care packages. Specifically, she is looking to get more local youth involved.
If interested, email Harkins at firstname.lastname@example.org.