By Michael J. ARVIZU
Since October 2012, Montrose Church members Susan and Brett DeLawter have visited Sunland Park in Sunland on the last Saturday of every month as part of their outreach ministry, Because You Matter.
So on March 30, armed with loads of food, clothing and other items, and with the assistance of church volunteers, the husband-and-wife team set up shop in a corner of the park for the March outreach.
But the outreach isn’t a garage sale or church fundraiser. The DeLawters and their volunteers visit the park each month for one reason only: to assist Sunland’s homeless population.
Sunland Park – officially Sunland Park Recreation Center – is located in Sunland, about a 10-minute car ride west of La Crescenta. It is bordered by Foothill Boulevard to the south and Fenwick Street to the north. Low-cost housing surrounds the park. With its baseball diamond, soccer field and skate park, it serves as a play area for residents. Carnivals in the spring and summer are also held there.
The park also has a homeless population who use it to sleep, congregate or seek shelter.
Each month at the park, Montrose Church volunteers will set up clothes racks and tables where guests can browse through the selection of clothing. A dinner, usually consisting of hamburgers, hot dogs, potato salad, and other foods, is served. Guests are also provided with hygiene kits, tents, sleeping bags and an additional sack lunch to take with them. Because You Matter also provides information to guests on where to find hot meals, food pantries, showers, and shelters.
“When I was homeless, there was another group of women that used to come to the park,” said Pattee Colvin of Sunland, who was homeless for nine years and now has a full-time job and runs the food pantry at Chapel of the Hills in Sunland in her spare time. The Sunland church is outreach partners with Montrose Church. “They used to bring us a hot meal and clothes once a week. A lot of those women were mentors in my life after a while.”
About 65 people in need of aid attended the March outreach, said Susan.
“It helps my brothers and sisters out here on the street,” said Arleigh Gibala who has been homeless by choice for 45 years, his King Shepherd Buddy sitting by his feet. “People need clothes. People need food. They need interaction. There should be more feeds and more provisions.”
But the ministry hopes to go beyond these basic needs by first treating the homeless as people.
From the most innocuous things, such as letting them choose which condiments to put on their hamburgers, to providing each guest with a name tag, each person is made to feel welcome, respected, and that they have a choice.
“The intention is to let them know that people outside of their little world care about them,” said Brett. “In doing so, we’re not promoting homelessness, what we’re trying to do is help some of these people pick up their lives and move forward with them.”
For the homeless individuals who encounter Because You Matter for the first time, this can come as quite a shock, Susan said.
“They’re not used to that,” she said. “They come out of this world of people not even giving them the time of day and respect — automatically thinking they’re a piece of trash because they’re homeless — to, ‘Would you like some ketchup?’ and, ‘How are you today?’ and eye contact and shaking hands.”
The DeLawters’ homeless ministry in Sunland is a smaller version of the homeless ministry the couple began in Pasadena in Christmas of 2009. On a drive through the city one day, the DeLawters spied a number of homeless people in Pasadena’s Central Park. It was at that moment the DeLawters realized their services were needed.
“We said that’s where we’re supposed to be,” said Brett.
Sunland became the next choice for the couple because the church has wanted to extend its outreach westward for some time.
“It just seemed like a natural progression,” said Brett. “We were initially drawn toward Pasadena, but the intent was that, in some way, shape, or form, we wanted to come the other direction.”
The church has always wanted to outreach in Sunland, but a shortage of volunteers prevented that in the past.
“It gives them a place to be where they can fellowship,” said Gibala. “They see that there’s a need and they’re filling the need. That doesn’t just help the homeless, it helps God.”
Homelessness, the couple said, is no longer just the man on the corner asking for change. They have seen husbands and wives, single parents with children, entire families, and grandparents.
“It’s heart-wrenching,” said Brett. “One week they’ve got something over their head, and the next week, they’re on the street. It’d be like any one of us suddenly thrown out in the street. We have no idea how to handle that. We’re just trying to be a buffer.”
And it’s no accident that Because You Matter holds its homeless outreach at the end of the month, said Susan. By the end of the month, she said, most have already run out of money.
“We’re just basically doing God’s work,” said Montrose Church volunteer Billy Truong, a resident of Rosemead. “This is not, to them, just a location for hand-me-outs. This is a location to come for emotional support, religious support, and friendship.”
Back at Sunland Park, as the afternoon wanes, Michael Stephen Cento of Sunland rummages through the selection of clothing on a table, looking for the his size. His eyes light up the moment he finds the shirt that will fit him.
Originally from Lancaster, Cento has been homeless for the past two years. Standing next to his red Harley, Cento was on the lookout for some food.
“I got clothes, but hey, I could always use more,” he said. “I think it’s awesome. Some of these churches are good. I get a free T-shirt, free pants.”
For more information on Because You Matter, call the church at (818) 249-8309, email Susan DeLawter at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.montrosechurch.org/because-you-matter.