Super Bowl party for homeless turns 20

BY DAVID BAUGHER, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Fund raiser, menu planner, volunteer coordinator, kitchen manager, chef, delivery person. Ask for Paul Sturma’s title and you get a list. He still fondly recalls 2001, the year he attended the Super Bowl in person and couldn’t volunteer to work the big hall across from Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church on Seventh Street. Of course, everyone made do just fine.

“They got three people to replace me,” he laughs with more than a little pride.

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Seeing Sturma in action – roving the small kitchen, yelling instructions and barking orders in a tone that would put any quarterback to shame – you’d bet three was egregious understaffing, but then again everyone works hard at this Soulard church on Super Bowl Sunday. This weekend marked the 20th year Sts. Peter and Paul has partnered with Congregation Kol Am to create its Super Bowl Party for the Homeless. The annual event feeds lunch and dinner to dozens of needy on the city’s South Side.

“From Thanksgiving to Christmas everybody thinks about the homeless,” said the good-natured Sturma, a former member of the church who has been helping cook for this event since its inception, “but it’s as if people think no one’s hungry after the 26th of December.”

Though his specialty is normally cheesy bread, this year Sturma whipped up a New Orleans-style gumbo in honor of the Super Bowl-bound Saints. The menu also included roasted pork loin, salad, sweet potatoes, glazed carrots, tomato rigatoni pasta and bread pudding. More than 10 local businesses and organizations donated items for the festivities and about 140 homeless attended the restaurant-style meal. According to Carol Wolf Solomon of Kol Am, that number has ranged as high as 200 in past years.

“It really drives it home that homelessness runs the gamut,” said Solomon, who has been volunteering for most of the program’s existence. “You have individuals who may have chronic illnesses and may be perpetually homeless and you have others who are here by virtue of one catastrophe in their life.”

That’s a big part of why the party was started in the first place. One celebration doesn’t alter lives but it provides a brief respite for participants and does as much to raise awareness about the nature of homelessness as to help those it serves, said Harvey Ferdman, who was the major driving force behind the event’s creation.

“While this is not representative of institutional change for our guests,” he said, “it does represent an opportunity for our volunteers to meet the needy in our society and to find out that these folks are not just statistics. They’re people.”

It can also be an enriching experience for the soul, Ferdman said.

“Over the years, whenever we’ve needed things they’ve always appeared,” he said, “many times from the most unlikely sources. So it’s been somewhat of a reinforcing of my faith and my spirituality to be involved in this and to see how, when we as Jews are willing to step up and do tikkun olam, that God provides.”

A little ingenuity helps, too. Kol Am volunteer Ron Schuff, who sets up the audio/visual equipment for the event, remembers well the year when a fuse blew just before game time and the operation went dark.

“It was a little, odd, European-style fuse,” he said. “Nobody was open. There was nowhere to go and get a new one.”

The group had to quickly disassemble a VCR to find a replacement and save the day.

Whatever trials it may endure, Norm Berkowitz, president of the synagogue, said the Super Bowl Party for the Homeless is always a success. He estimates that as much as 50 percent of his congregation is involved in the effort in some manner from the volunteers at the event to the children at the religious school who assemble personal hygiene gift packages for the participants. Between Kol Am, Sts. Peter and Paul and a youth group from the St. Louis Chinese Gospel Church, about 50-60 volunteers were on-site to lend a hand.

“It’s our biggest social action event,” Berkowitz said. “We’re not approaching this as a fundamental addressing of homelessness. What we want to do is give this group one day of the year where they are treated as guests. The Super Bowl is such a national holiday with people doing so many parties and celebrating, let’s let these guys have a chance to do that.”

Judging from the deafeningly raucous reaction to every touchdown and tackle, they’ve succeeded.

“These guys know the game,” Berkowitz said alluding to the dozens of different conversations about coaches, athletes and plays, which were enlivening the other room. “They fully comprehend every nuance and follow it.”

Eddie Smith, 61, was all smiles as he cheered on the Indianapolis Colts. Smith, who said it seemed he’d been homeless “all my life,” felt that the event provided a change of pace from the stress and grinding routine of life on the street. The shelters Smith and others in his situation seek refuge in generally close around sunrise, leaving residents to the elements until they reopen for the night. Part of the Super Bowl party’s benefit is that it allows participants to spend an entire day indoors.

“It’s good to do something different instead of going place to place,” he said. “I can come here and after everything is over, the van takes me back to the shelter.”

Bradley Taylor isn’t homeless but he used to be. Now employed with a janitorial services company, he still attends the Super Bowl party to catch up with friends. Some of the people in the room he’s known for four decades.

“It’s a get together for people who don’t see each other a lot,” Taylor said. “They sit here, talk, have a nice warm meal and get to know other people.”

Full of cheery enthusiasm, Taylor is happy to see his buddies and happier still to use events like this to spread a message of hope to them.

“I try to encourage the brothers who are on the street not to give up because something will happen,” he said.

Just as something has happened for Taylor, who now lives in a small kitchenette apartment in the Central West End. He smiles broadly when asked how life is treating him now.

“It’s beautiful,” he said.

A brief pause yields another smile — and an indication that perhaps some things haven’t changed for the ebulliently optimistic 51-year-old after all.

“It was beautiful even when I was homeless,” he said. “I couldn’t complain.”