By GWEN OREL
Steven Casper did not know how long the shelter where he stayed had been waiting for a microwave.
But it was a while.
After Casper talked to Karen Coussoulis about it, the microwave arrived within two days.
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“Everything I’ve asked, if they could provide it, they provided it,” he said. “The clothes they give out, it’s unbelievable. The type of clothes — Lands’ End, L.L. Bean. People don’t know. I just became homeless, so this is new to me.”
Coussoulis and Jacqueline Caroprese are the founders and organizers of weGodthis, a volunteer group of local moms who serve food on Sundays and Wednesdays to homeless people in Newark’s Peter Francisco Park.
Casper relocated to Newark from South Jersey for a job this past winter, but the job fell through. When his funds ran out, he moved to the United Community Center.
And then coronavirus came, and “everything went haywire,” he said.
Coussoulis and Caroprese never missed a day. The two moms met through their children, who both attend Montclair’s Lacordaire Academy. Caroprese, of Rutherford, began working with the homeless about nine years ago; she was a youth group leader at St. Mary’s Church in Rutherford and wanted to find a way to involve local youth in helping the homeless. She began working with the Friends in Need Foundation, bringing food to the homeless at Peter Francisco Park.
That organization, however, which is based in San Diego, only provided food, not winter coats. Caroprese wanted to do more. She began running coat drives on her own. Then she joined forces with Coussoulis, of Little Falls, about two years ago.
OFFICIAL, AND PERSONAL
This past May, the group became an official nonprofit organization. They celebrated in June with a picnic in Peter Francisco Park with the people they serve.
Going through the steps to be a nonprofit organization helped the group define and hone its mission, which is:
“To grow relationships by giving our time and love to the struggling, the deserving, the hungry, the forgotten, and the lost. We strive to serve as God’s hands and feet on earth and act as a vessel for those with hearts to give. We aspire to achieve this through the support and generosity of our donors and volunteers.”
In addition to the nonprofit’s three trustees, Caroprese, Coussoulis, and Lauren McMahon, of Riverdale, weGodthis has an executive board of five women and a group of volunteers they call “The God Squad,” committed volunteers who show up every week.
While many groups work with the homeless, weGodthis offers something a little different, Coussoulis said.
“One of the things people cling to in our organizations is that we talk to real people on the streets. There’s no middleman. We’re on the streets with them and they’re there, and they’re telling us what they need,” she explained.
For example, if someone tells her he got a new job and needs work boots, Coussoulis will post the need to the group’s social media. When they deliver the boots to the person who needed them, they will send a text or video to the donor.
“And getting that message back, and knowing who it’s going to, it’s very personal,” Caroprese said.
They bring the items on Sunday, and pass them out after they have served about 150 people.
Donors have donated to their wish list, too: Recently a donor got weGodthis a bus that they can use to bring not just food but also clothes and toiletries. “It’s the bus of blessing,” Caroprese said. They hope to be able to branch off and serve people in Paterson, in New York, or wherever the need might be.
It was a homeless man named Anthony who told them to put the bus on their wish list when he heard them talking about it. “Put it out there,” he said.
BEING A VESSEL
Though “God” is in the title, weGodthis is not affiliated with any church.
“We have people that we serve that are Muslim, Hindu, atheist,” Coussoulis said. Prayer before and after meals is general.
But faith is what inspires them and keeps them going: Mother Teresa is Caroprese’s inspiration. “She was a little woman living in a Third-World country, helping one person at a time. She had a quote that said, ‘What we’re doing feels like a drop in the ocean, but the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.’ And that’s how we feel. We might not be able to change the world, but if we could change someone’s life or someone’s day and make them happy… it’s in giving we receive.”
And the relationships they build are real, Coussoulis said. They see the same people over weeks and begin to know them.
“They know that for the past two years we have never missed a Sunday,” she said. “And anything they have asked for we have gotten them. I go for them.”
Sometimes the people in the park have been sleeping outdoors, or waiting in lines, and are not in good moods, Coussoulis said.
A man named Patrick became very angry, and threatened to punch them.
The women had not met him before, but talked with him to calm him down.
The next week he showed up again. Oh no, they thought, but responded cheerfully to greet him. He apologized. He said he’d been thinking about his behavior all week. They told him not to worry about it.
And now he runs over to help them when he sees them, helping them with the garbage, helping them serve.
‘IT’S NOT THE FOOD’
One young woman had become homeless as a teenager when her parents kicked her out of the house due to her addiction.
“We ended up becoming friends,” Caroprese said. “I told her, ‘Listen, I want you serving on this side of the line with me one day.’ Literally a year later from when I met her she was on my side of the line.” Andrea, the young woman, went back to school and is now a medical assistant. Such success stories are rare, and Caroprese does not give herself credit for being more than a friend. Sometimes they meet someone once and never see them again. Coussoulis and Caroprese hope it’s because the person is no longer homeless, but they do not know.
But they give out their numbers to the people they meet and text them and try to keep in touch with how they are doing.
“It’s not the food. The food is a channel that gives us a reason to be there to give something, but it’s not what our organization is about,” Caroprese said. People rely on them, she said; whenever she pulls up there is always a line. “They have faith that we’re showing up, no matter the weather.”
In March and April, during the first months of lockdown, some organizations stopped going to the park. But weGodthis always went. It was even more important — some people told them they had not eaten in 48 hours, Coussoulis said.
For Casper, who said he was about to start a new job, it is special that the weGodthis women give out their numbers to people they don’t know.
“The compassion,” he said. “They go above and beyond. You can imagine the people that count on them. They’re down there in Penn Station, people who don’t go into shelters, they stay there.”
Just last week, he saw a woman jump on the subway tracks in front of him and get killed. “It’s really bad down there,” he said. “This is something to look forward to, when there’s really no hope.”