More than 800 kids from local Catholic schools put aside their books and rolled up their sleeves to help the area’s needy on Monday, Jan. 29 in a Catholic Schools Week event at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
In less than five hours, students from archdiocesan elementary schools, high schools and schools of special education assembled more than 17,000 relief packages in the seminary’s auditorium. Working in shifts around long tables filled with supplies, participants placed fruit cups, granola bars, socks, toothbrushes and note cards into plastic bags and rucksacks for those struggling with hunger and homelessness.
The items will be distributed to more than 50 feeding sites throughout the five-county Philadelphia area as part of the Community Food Cupboard, a program of the archdiocese’s Nutritional Development Services (NDS).
Through these sites — which include parish- and community-based food cupboards, homeless outreaches and local hospitals — NDS distributes food exceeding 2 million meals each year.
(Watch the full video from the event here:)
As an archdiocesan agency within the Secretariat for Catholic Human Services, NDS provides meals, food assistance and additional support to organizations that serve children and the poor. Monday’s service project marked the start of Catholic Schools Week Jan. 28 to Feb. 3, observed annually in the United States since 1974.
The national theme of this year’s celebration is “Catholic Schools: Learn. Serve. Lead. Succeed.” In addition, each day of the observance has a specific focus, with Monday’s activity dedicated to “Nourishing our Neighbors — Catholic School Students as Servant Leaders.”
Archbishop Charles Chaput, the archdiocese’s four auxiliary bishops, Catholic education officials and NDS staff joined the students in the service event, offering prayers and encouragement — as well as a shout-out to the Super Bowl-bound Philadelphia Eagles.
“I’m walking with a cane today due to an old football injury I sustained while playing quarterback for the team,” the archbishop joked.
He then reminded the students that Jesus came not to be served, but to serve, and that “the real success for anybody is pleasing God and serving our neighbor.”
Lizanne Hagedorn, the executive director of NDS, emphasized that the relief bags contained more than material items.
“They are filled with hope,” she said, adding that those suffering from poverty and hunger “walk among us every day.” Hagedorn noted that in Philadelphia alone, an estimated one in four children are part of households that struggle with food insecurity.
Father John Nordeman attended the gathering with 25 students from Lansdale Catholic High School, where he is the director of school ministry. He described the concept of servant leadership as “a ‘both-and’ proposition,” one that “gives students the chance to integrate their spiritual life into the practical and the everyday.”
In addition to offering an immediate opportunity to serve, the event was designed to educate participants about the issue of food insecurity. Prior to assembling the bags, students attended a 20-minute orientation session that provided details about the specific needs the NDS Community Food Cupboard seeks to redress.
Hagedorn advised students to reflect on this information, and also urged participants not to underestimate the impact of their efforts.
For Kara Fischetti, a senior at Lansdale Catholic, the project offered an opportunity to meaningfully connect her education with the needs of the community.
“I really think that this day just brings my Catholic school experience all together and ties it up for me,” Fischetti said.
The link between service, leadership and community is central to the popular concept of servant leadership, a term coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in a 1970 essay.
An author with decades of corporate executive experience, Greenleaf wrote that “caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built.”
Hagedorn said the notion is as radical as it is foundational.
“Servant leadership is key to transforming our society,” she said. “If each one of us could become a servant and live our lives like that, then we would have a great world.”