t’s called the “Midnight Run,” but it’s finished by 7:30 p.m., and you don’t need to bring your sneakers.
Despite what the name suggests, the Midnight Run is the flagship volunteer event of the Catholic Charities Junior Board–no running required. Held on the second Wednesday of each month, the Run recruits up to 20 volunteers to distribute up to 80 brown-bag meals to the street homeless of New York City. The event has grown so popular in recent months that it’s become a waitlisted affair, with 21-to-39-year-old volunteers signing up months in advance (like an exclusive club opening, but with latex gloves instead of couture).
The mechanics of the Run couldn’t be simpler. Each volunteer reports to a conference room in the Catholic Charities Headquarters at 7 p.m. on the appointed Wednesday, bearing a pre-assigned grocery item, like two pounds of deli meat, or 16 individually-wrapped snacks. They take their places in the assembly line, stuffing Ziplocks with fresh ham-and-cheese sandwiches, or popping a granola bar and a bottle of water into each open brown bag. Calls of “Low on bread!” and “Double the cheese!” and “Extra snacks!” ricochet up and down the conference room table as delayed subway trains or last-minute work assignments cause some volunteers–and their groceries–to be late to the party. Fleet-footed recruits race out to a nearby Morton Williams for more loaves of bread and pounds of cheese, without slowing down the production of finished bags.
At the end of this half-hour of cheerful frenzy, the team has produced four bags for each volunteer to take with them on their commute home. Volunteers live all over the city, and their journeys home take them through major transit hubs like Times Square, Penn Station, and Grand Central. In theory, this part of their mission is the simplest yet: they will hand out their bags to street homeless. Of course, that’s not all there is to it.
FOUR WAYS OF LOOKING AT A RUN
I’ve been coordinating the Midnight Run every month for nearly three years. Like many Junior Board volunteers, this event was my first contact with Catholic Charities, and served as my gateway into the organization. I orient volunteers each month with information about CCNY and the human services needs it addresses here in NYC, as well as upcoming opportunities to get involved with the Junior Board, through volunteering, fundraising, fellowship, and worship.
But I’m not delusional about our contribution being a solution to homelessness in our city. Mayor de Blasio’s office reports that 3,600 New Yorkers sleep on the streets each night, with another 62,000 in the shelter system. Our 80 brown bags with ham-and-cheese sandwiches and granola bars are a drop in the bucket.
So why stick with it? Why not get discouraged about the apparent impossibility of making a meaningful change to the homelessness crisis among our neighbors? I’m no expert, but I encourage volunteers to consider the event with four different perspectives in mind:
- The bag isn’t just a meal–it’s also a touchpoint for Catholic Charities’s vital services. Each bag contains the number for the Catholic Charities hotline, where a caller can be connected with caseworkers from a range of agencies, dealing with issues from housing to hunger to medical to legal. Having access to this information could be a first step for someone to get the help they need in finding stability, safety, and health.
- The bag isn’t just a meal–it’s also an opportunity for human contact. I’ll state the obvious: the street homeless are not often treated with the dignity and respect they deserve as children of God. Offering someone a meal is a chance to make eye contact, engage in conversation, or laugh at a joke together. I have heard from formerly homeless recipients of CCNY services that simple human respect was among the most difficult losses on their journey through homelessness.
- Our vision may change in a surprising way. We’re all used to avoiding subway cars where a homeless person is sleeping, or looking away from the homeless on street corners and platforms. When our volunteers are roaming the streets of Manhattan seeking recipients for our meals, it can become clear how actively avoidant of poverty we can be in our daily lives. When we change our lens to try to see homelessness, we may be surprised to realize how hard we usually try not to see it. This change of perspective was an “a-ha!” moment for me that I try to take with me into every day of the month, not just the third Wednesday.
- We may need the Midnight Run just as much as the people we’re serving. I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but the Midnight Run is fun. My generation self-reports as lonely and seeking meaning, and a room full of cheery volunteers united by a common desire to come together and, yes, “make a difference,” can only be a good thing. Our monthly gathering has a delightfully DIY aspect, too, with boxed wine and Spotify oldies playlists as we catch up on each others’ new jobs and pets and wedding plans. The Junior Board is a community, and in a time of increasing social isolation, volunteering with us is a way to ground yourself in service and fellowship.
THE BRAND IS STRONG
Since the first time I heard about Midnight Run and shuddered, imagining jock jams and shin splints, the Junior Board has considered re-naming the event to more accurately reflect what we do. Named to pay homage to the NYC organization that inspired us, we admit that the name sometimes confuses prospective volunteers.
Run for the Homeless? (Still sounds like a 5K.) Feeding the Homeless Night? (This doesn’t sound quick and easy!) Junior Board Hunger Run? (Like a strike, but sweatier.)
At the end of the day, we’ve decided our Midnight Runners are too attached to our community to change the name, so we’ll continue under this flag. If you see a young professional type roaming the streets of the Upper East Side with a grocery bag full of sandwiches on the second Wednesday of next month, you’ll know why.