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25 years bringing food to rural poor

St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute's Thursday morning delivery of two truckloads of donated food was more than an act of charity to aid St. Bonaventure University's Warming House on West State Street.

It was the 25th year of the annual St. Joseph's Food Basket drive, which runs for three weeks after Thanksgiving and enlists the efforts of the St. Joseph student body, faculty, family and friends.

The 940 boxes that arrived in Olean filled with 49,000 nonperishable food items represent 90 percent of the supplies that will be used by the Warming House. Any surplus is shared by the Warming House with other area food banks when their supplies run low.

The drive's origin dates back 37 years, when St. Joseph's history teacher Chuck Ende began transporting the food to the Olean area in his small van. The Warming House, sponsored by St. Bonaventure University, has been the primary recipient of the students' generosity for the past 25 years.

"We try to bring in as much as we can from the Monday before Thanksgiving until last Tuesday," said Matt Scherer, St. Joseph's student leader who brought almost 50 students from the Town of Tonawanda boys' high school to Olean to man a "bucket brigade" to unload the boxes.

This year saw the largest-ever number of student volunteers unloading the food, said the organizers. They were aided by some St. Bonaventure University faculty and even some of the regular guests in the Warming House dining room. Boxes were stacked to the ceiling in every available space throughout the Warming House kitchen. Finally some had to be piled against the wall in the dining room.

It took about 90 minutes to make the transfer, and the work ended just as a stack of pizzas was delivered to the hungry volunteers.
According to Warming House Director Trevor Thompson the decades-old connection between the two institutions brings much-needed donations but also affords the high school students a brief opportunity to step out of their world of relative privilege and into the world of rural poverty.

"We don't really know how many poor people we have here, but the rural poor are some of the people who are most overlooked," said Bob Donius, vice president of St. Bonaventure University's Campus Ministry.

The Warming House serves dinner to 30 or 40 guests six nights a week, and Donius said the menu relies on a number of other donations from area merchants, churches, local residents and St. Bonaventure alumni.

The facility opens every day except Saturday at 2:30 p.m., about two hours before the evening meal is served, and the guests help themselves to coffee, snacks, games and the newspaper.
"People have a history with each other and have been coming here for years. The numbers grow at the end of the month, the time when support checks begin to run out," Thompson said.
St. Joseph's Food Basket also serves the hungry in Erie County. Ende said that about 350 more boxes were given to five soup kitchens in the Buffalo area and the Vietnam veterans' group in Tonawanda.

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