By Christine Bryant
Sandy Bonneville has a motto by which she lives: From the pew, to the pavement, to the people.
“The church doesn’t just exist inside its doors,” she says.
As Bonneville walks the streets of the Hilltop and Franklinton areas, she holds that motto close. It’s been an inspiration for her as director of the Take it to the Streets ministry, an initiative that takes meals and basic needs directly to the streets and into the hands of the needy and unsheltered.
“The Hilltop/Franklinton area is a quilt of poverty,” she said. “Each patch represents a situation of poverty such as gentrification, loss of jobs, the pandemic, addiction, crime, inflation and more.”
As director of the ministry, which is part of the St. Aloysius Community Outreach, Bonneville and the program’s volunteers ensure that individuals living on the streets have access to basic needs.
“So many folks on the streets, tucked away in storefronts, corners or abandoned doorways – hungry, destitute, addicted, suffering from the elements, various trauma, mental illness, unsheltered, living in their cars or seeking shelter,” she said. “Many people see these folks everyday. Yet these folks remain invisible to many.”
A beacon of hope on the Hilltop for more than 100 years, St. Aloysius Church offers several community outreach programs.
“If one looks up and down West Broad Street, they’ll see the bell tower steeple of St. Al’s standing directly on the top of the hill,” Bonneville said. “St. Al’s served as a center of relief during the Great Flood of 1913 and again as a center of relief in 1959 when the Scioto River flooded.”
For nearly half a century, the church has hosted an annual free community Thanksgiving Day dinner that Bonneville has directed for the past 24 years. The church has also hosted community monthly dinners, summer cookouts, and free lunch and grocery giveaways through two outreaches: Saints Alive, a homeless advocacy ministry and St. Aloysius Community Outreach.
Once or twice a week, Bonneville and about six other volunteers take to the streets to help those who aren’t able to attend the church’s outreach events.
“Three of us go at a time bringing a full and healthy meal, blankets, toiletries, hygiene products, care bags and various essentials,” she said. “We’ve brought other items requested – socks, shoes, tarps – and we try our best to obtain other items needed.”
Bonneville says items like shampoo, deodorant, clean towels, socks and personal care items are greatly appreciated.
“We receive various support from the church, food bank and personal donations,” she said. “We fill my large SUV to the brim and stay out until everything has been given away, which is usually about one to two hours.”
The ministry serves about 75 men and women weekly, though the need increases each week, Bonneville says. Volunteers drive up and down Sullivant Avenue and West Broad Street, as well as some other spots on side streets, in alleys and in secluded areas.
“We usually meet up with many of the same people and each week we encounter more friends in need,” she said. “And some we never meet again.”
Volunteers take the time to talk to individuals when possible to learn more about their situations and needs.
A gentle, soft-spoken man caring for his diabetic father, both living in a tent. A 53-year-old woman who has been on the streets for a year and now has cancer, with a male companion caring for her. An older man who told Bonneville he never thought he’d be homeless and was trying to get across town to the VA hospital. A woman looking through a garbage bag for something to eat.
“So many stories,” Bonneville said. “So much sadness, yet so much inspiration. The resilience, fortitude and gratitude we encounter through serving these men and women can teach us a lesson in humility.”
Even though many of the individuals Bonneville comes across have little, they are the first to share what they do have, she says.
“They will never take more than they need,” she said.
Yet despite being surrounded by sadness, there is inspiration, Bonneville says.
“So we go out again,” she said. “When we take the time to notice, to see not just with our eyes but with our hearts and refrain from judging others, and listen to the stories that brought these men and women to the streets, then perhaps hopefully we’ll understand and truly see that they are children of God,” she said.
The goal, Bonneville says, is to lift people up, one meal and one smile at a time, and to serve all with respect and dignity.
“Then maybe we’ll understand that we all have needs,” she said. “We all just want to know someone cares for us, and that a smile can bring light in others’ shadows.”
To donate to St. Aloysius Community Outreach or Take it to the Streets, checks can be mailed to St. Aloysius Church, 32 Clarendon Ave., Columbus, Ohio 43223. To donate items, call (614) 531-4062.