Four times a week, before the heat of the day sets in, a small group of volunteers gathers at St. Bede the Venerable's parish kitchen. Their goal is to have as many as 300 lunches — a sandwich, a piece of fruit and a sweet for dessert — all bagged and ready to go before 8 a.m.
The meals are destined to reach shelters on L.A.'s Skid Row by lunchtime. But some of the volunteer workers, who call themselves the Skidettes, will be back at St. Bede's a couple of days later to spread more peanut butter on more slices of bread in a tradition that started 30 years ago.
“The camaraderie of the group is what keeps me coming back,” said Mary Batenhorst, a longtime Skidette who serves as the group's treasurer. “The idea that we are doing something to help someone, to feed the kids and the adults, is special.”
The effort began in 1982, when Father Michael Biewend would travel downtown to hear confessions and bring lunches to the destitute inhabitants of Skid Row, according to Skidettes leader Mary Ann Fell. Biewend left St. Bede's years ago, but the tradition carries on with roughly 35 Skidettes — some of whom have volunteered for more than 20 years — getting lunches to four shelters: Las Familias Del Pueblo, Jovenes, Angel's Flight and the Cardinal Manning Center.
Every Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, workers prepare peanut butter-and-jelly and ham-and-cheese sandwiches using bread donated by Vons, Panera and Ralphs. A generous parishioner who works at Western Mixers, a produce and nut distributor in Los Angeles, donates fruit. Golden Donuts on Foothill Boulevard contributes sweets.
Each of the shelters works with a different population on Skid Row. Las Familias Del Pueblo provides daycare for the children of workers in L.A.'s textile district. Jovenes is a shelter for Hispanic youth between 18 and 25. Angel's Flight seeks out runaway teens and helps them with food, shelter and training, while St. Vincent De Paul's Cardinal Manning Center offers food to anyone in need, as well as services for families and children.
St. Bede's is also the spot where Brother's Helpers, a larger group of church and student volunteers, started making hot meals for downtown denizens 10 years ago. Today Brother's Helpers works out of the kitchens of five churches to deliver dinners five days a week to as many as 350 poor people near Olvera Street, according to co-executive director Roberta Peters. The churches include St. Bede's, La Cañada Presbyterian Church, St. James the Less Catholic Church in La Crescenta, Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in Montrose and Our Lady Queen of the Angels — La Placita, the downtown church where the meals are served.
Peters said Brother's Helpers began with a St. Bede's parishioner named John Olsen. “He saw a need and he just got people together to start making dinner, and it went from there,” she said.
Fell, a Skidette for 20 years, said the work is more than worth it. “You feel good when you do something for other people. When you live for yourself it is a very selfish lifestyle. But when you live for helping others, it is very rewarding.”
City Editor Bill Kisliuk contributed to this story.