An energetic graduate of Niagara University set out last year to make a difference in the lives of needy people in an impoverished section of Niagara Falls, and she ended up making even more of a difference in her own life.
Kalani Personius, who graduated this year with a degree in education with emphasis on French and Spanish, organized a once-a-week soup kitchen in the former St. George Catholic Church, 1910 Falls St., after she learned how many people in the neighborhood were desperately disadvantaged.
Some of her mentors said Personius was a "natural" for organizing the project because she was a student leader, active member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society and 2011 recipient of the NU Student Government Association's Compassion Award.
She also was given the Blessed Frederic Ozanam Award from the Department of Religious Studies and the Father James O'Keefe Medal for excellence in the study of French, among other honors.
"The soup kitchen has taught me a lesson about life, about the human race and about myself," Personius told The Buffalo News.
"We are all living on this earth together, striving for happiness and hoping for success. Regardless of the individual struggles that we endure, together we can work to improve each others' lives, whether it be physically, mentally or financially," she said.
"From this experience I have taken as much as, if not more than I gave, and I cannot imagine not having had this experience to grow from throughout my college experience at Niagara. St. George's Church will always have a special place in my heart, and I will carry these memories wherever I go."
St. George's was closed as a Catholic church in the diocesan downsizing in 2008 to merge with Holy Trinity, St. Stanislaus Kostka and Our Lady of the Rosary to form a new parish, Divine Mercy, with Masses at the St. Stanislaus Kostka site.
Monica Saltarelli, a campus minister at NU and adviser to the St. Vincent de Paul Society, said St. George's has been taken over by an Anglican congregation and now is known as St. George's Anglican Church of Canada.
The idea for the soup kitchen began last fall with Joanne Lorenzo, a deaconess of the Anglican Church of Canada and ordained minister who oversees programming at St. George's and is the founder and director of the Magdalene Project, an outreach program for troubled women. She was looking for a project for Thursday evenings, the only night in the week when there was no community outreach at the church.
Lorenzo called Saltarelli and asked whether the university's service-learning mission might be interested in such a project. Saltarelli immediately recruited Personius to head the program, sign up and organize volunteers, monitor budgets, plan menus and shop for food.
Hadara Katarski, coach of the women's cross country team at NU, said: "Kalani is a natural leader. She always demonstrates role model behavior and puts others before herself. She is extremely responsible and fully dedicated to everything she does."
Personius was last year's cross country captain.
She soon brought in fellow students Mary Gibson, Jessica Spellane and Christa Mastro to comprise the leadership of the soup kitchen project. Gibson graduated this year, but Spellane and Mastro are expected to return this fall to carry on the project through the coming school year.
Needing more volunteers, Personius sent out a desperate call for help. Her call was answered by Chase Brooks, head coach of the NU men's soccer team, who said he wanted his players to get involved.
Personius warned them that she wanted them to be committed for the whole school year. She didn't want them backing out after one or two appearances at the food kitchen. They signed on, and Personius set up a rotating schedule of five or six volunteers for each Thursday beginning last November.
Depending on the weather and personal economic circumstances, the kitchen has served anywhere from a dozen to 72 meals each week. Much of the food is donated to the kitchen, but the group also has organized fundraising drives to augment the menu.
Lorenzo, the Anglican deaconess, said: "I cannot tell you how desperate some parts of the city are for people to step up to the plate like these students have. And not only have they come in with a willingness to feed the hungry, the students actually seem eager to listen to these folks, who may not have another person in the world to talk to."
Personius said she didn't want her teams to be "just servers for the people that came to eat. I wanted them to get to know us, to have conversations with us and for it to become more of a community experience."
Kaylie Lamica, who expects to graduate in 2014, said she joined the program "because I needed a few service hours. After a while, I just wanted to go. I asked Kalani if I could keep coming and she kept me on the schedule."
Potential donors to the soup kitchen can call Lorenzo at the Magdalene Project, 282-0908. Saltarelli, Spellane and Mastro can be reached through Niagara University's Office of Campus Ministry at 286-8409.
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