PROJECT DAWN VOLUNTEERS (left) Ellen Hotz and JoAnne and Steve Taylor prepare for a meal run and (right) a patron relaxes with dinner.
PROJECT DAWN VOLUNTEERS (left) Ellen Hotz and JoAnne and Steve Taylor prepare for a meal run and (right) a patron relaxes with dinner.
Ministering to people in need in Rensselaer County has always been a goal for St. Michael's parish in Troy. Now, that effort has reached a new level with "Project Dawn," a bimonthly meal served in downtown Troy to people who are homeless.

On the first and third Saturdays of every month, volunteers from St. Michael's load up two or three cars with hot food and bagged meals and set up a buffet line in the parking lot of St. Anthony's parish in Troy. They also bring donated clothing for adults and children to distribute.

The ministry is called Project Dawn to signify the hope that, with help, people can rise out of homelessness. Volunteers wear t-shirts with the slogan, "With each new day comes the chance for a new beginning."

Project Dawn came about after Barbara Berger, St. Michael's pastoral associate and director of faith formation and youth ministry, took some teens on a "Midnight Run" to New York City. Midnight Runs distribute food and clothing to people living on the streets of New York.

Here at home
The youths loved the experience, but the travel and van rental was expensive. Parish life director Sister Katherine Arseneau, CSJ, noted that there are at least 100 homeless people right in Rensselaer County who might need help.

"Why don't you have a meeting with Joseph House and the Roarke Center?" said Sister Kate, referring to a Troy shelter and a Catholic Charities center that provides food and other services to low-income persons.

Ms. Berger did. She learned that there are many services available on weekdays for people who are homeless and hungry, but not as many on weekends. St. Michael's decided to offer food on Saturdays.

The core team for the ministry is JoAnne and Steve Taylor and Sean Robbins, but the whole parish has gotten involved. Parishioners donate cases of water and bake cookies. Children help to pack the bagged meals. Adults, college students and teens have helped to transport and serve hot food.

"People can sign up to bring two peppers or a couple of pounds of pasta," Sister Kate told The Evangelist. They can also donate or sort clothing, make sandwiches and help with other aspects of the ministry. Ms. Berger routinely sees second- or third-graders and senior citizens working side by side to prepare for a Project Dawn meal run.

Trial runs
Starting in June, volunteers tried parking in several different locations in downtown Troy to offer meals, including Monument Square and on a street near Prospect Park, where homeless people are known to camp.

St. Anthony's parking lot turned out to be the best site in the city to find people in need. But "we had to build up a reputation with the homeless," noted Sister Kate.

Project Dawn volunteers put up flyers at Joseph House and put the word out that they would be at St. Anthony's every first and third Saturday at 5:30 p.m.

What began as simply offering bagged lunches turned into the current buffet-style hot meal, with patrons also receiving a bagged breakfast of hard-boiled eggs, breakfast bars and juice boxes for the next morning to tide them through the weekend. "It's grown and grown," Ms. Berger said, with at least 50 people being served at each outing. It takes about an hour and a half to serve the whole crowd.

"We know some people now," Ms. Berger added. "They'll say, 'Oh, great, you're here! I'll be right back,' and in 10 minutes they'll come back with somebody else. People look out for one another."

Meeting people
Everyone who comes looking for food has a story about having fallen on hard times. Ms. Berger recalled one young man who told the volunteers he'd recently become homeless but thought he'd have a place to live soon -- and, when he did, he wanted to come back and help serve the meals.

Another man told the group he had something for them and reached into his backpack. Some volunteers felt nervous about what he might do, but the man pulled out a Bible and began to read to them from the Gospel of John.

It's experiences like that that Ms. Berger calls "wonderful."

Now that Project Dawn is well underway, St. Michael's plans to open it up to volunteers from other parishes, then community groups and other religious denominations.

"We're hoping some other parishes get involved," Sister Kate said.

She knows her own parishioners are keeping close track of the ministry: When she said at Mass one weekend that Project Dawn had served half the population of homeless people in the city of Troy, one man asked afterward, "What about the other [half]?"

(To donate to Project Dawn, call Ms. Berger at 518-283-6110, ext. 204.)