Miami-Dade County

This food giveaway is different than others — just ask the teens behind it

Jorge Garcia Jr., center, and his dad help a food recipient with her bags during a giveaway at St. John Bosco Catholic Church in Little Havana on Sunday, Dec. 17, 2017. The St. John Bosco Noche Buena Food Distribution was organized by Catholic high school students.
Jorge Garcia Jr., center, and his dad help a food recipient with her bags during a giveaway at St. John Bosco Catholic Church in Little Havana on Sunday, Dec. 17, 2017. The St. John Bosco Noche Buena Food Distribution was organized by Catholic high school students. mocner@miamiherald.com

German Peña’s shopping bag was overloaded with dozens of items — mostly canned goods and produce — that hadn’t cost him anything. But the one he was standing in line for now, the last, was definitely going to be the best.

“They tell me that over there” — he gestured to the back of the St. John Bosco Catholic Church parish hall in Little Havana — “they’re going to give me a turkey,” the 73-year-old Pena said. His solemn face crinkled into a grin. “I want mine wild and alive.”

Live turkeys were just about the only thing not in stock at the 20th annual St. John Bosco Noche Buena Food Distribution on Sunday at 1349 W. Flagler St. About 800 families — more than 5,000 people — moved through a shopping line collecting beans, corn, soup, milk, pasta and of course that frozen 15-pound turkey, 62 items in all.

Food giveaways abound across South Florida during the holiday season. What makes the one at St. John Bosco different is that for its entire existence it’s been organized and run by teenagers.

“Our parents buy the stuff, and some of the food is donated,” said 16-year-old Lulu de la Peña, who attends Miami’s Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart in Coconut Grove. “But we do most of the work. Look around — you can see that most of the food stations are being run by teenage girls and a few of their mothers.”

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Adam Palma organizes the food he received during a giveaway at St. John Bosco Catholic Church in Little Havana on Sunday, Dec. 17, 2017. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

The first giveaway was put together 20 years ago by classmates at Carrollton and Belen Jesuit Prep School. This year, 26 families donated at least 700 cans or boxes of food apiece. The kids collected it, set it up supermarket style, and handed it out as recipients move through the aisles.

“We could just put it all into the bags and hand them out, but we want people to see us and know that real human beings put it together, and that we care about them,” Lulu said. “Everybody shakes hands and says Merry Christmas, and that makes it personal.”

The food distribution takes three to four weeks of intense preparation by the kids — you try to round up 800 turkeys and get them to church — and it isn’t always an easy sell to teenagers during a month filled with holiday parties and sporting events. But the teenagers at St. John Bosco on Sunday didn’t mind.

“We all have lots of things, and we buy more things as gifts for each other,” said Sabrina Mas, whose family donated the turkeys. “But the truth is that we can get these things whenever we want.

“These people here getting food really can’t. So it makes Christmas special for them, too.”

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