Yes, there are angels among us!
They show up every Friday. That’s truly the silent thought stirring in the hearts and minds of more than 40 children at Brooke Intermediate North School in Brooke County.
You see Friday is the day these boys and girls find a generous bag of food in their backpacks to take home – enough food to provide them meals for two days (or more if there is a holiday).
“Oh! My angel food! My angel was here again,” a teacher overheard a little girl say with excitement, when she went to her locker at the end of the school day and peered into her white grocery bag of surprises.
That angel is Janet Ryan Benzo. Although Benzo would quickly tell you she by no means deserves any special credit. She says she is just part of a small legion of angels from St. Anthony’s Parish in Follansbee who run the Friday Food Program.
Benzo grew up in Mannington, WV. She has very fond memories of her childhood in Marion County back in the 1950s. Her parents, Cassy and Helen Ryan, took their daughters – Janet, Ruth, and Patty to St. Patrick’s Church. Cassy was a teacher and Coach.
“We had it good,” Janet said. “We did not to have a need for anything. It wasn’t until later in life I realized how fortunate we were.
“I was a teenager when I noticed that some of the other kids in my community needed help,” she said. “They didn’t have what we did.”
Her passion to help others grew from there. Janet chose to follow in the footsteps of her father and become a teacher. She graduated from nearby Fairmont State and soon after accepted a job for Brooke County Schools.
“It was a long way from home, but my father knew Fr. Harry Moore, who grew up in Mannington; and coincidently Fr. Moore was the pastor at St. Anthony’s in Follansbee,” Benzo said. “My family was happy to know someone in this new place I would end up calling home (for more than 50 years).
“I didn’t own a car,” she explained with a grin and shaking her head obviously recalling the impressive jaunt for a young, naïve college graduate. “I had to take a bus from Mannington to Hundred, then Hundred to Wheeling, before I got on another bus from Wheeling to Follansbee.”
Fr. Moore helped her get settled into her new community. She found a room to rent on Virginia Avenue. She loved her teaching job and later earned a master’s degree from West Virginia University, before marrying her husband James. While the two never had children of their own she had her hands full with instructing and molding literally hundreds of children in her 32 years of teaching physical education, health, social studies, and geography at the middle school and high school level.
Nurturing children is something Benzo is truly passionate about to the point that she didn’t hesitate to take on the Friday Friends Program.
The program began at the Community of Christ Church by Gene and Sarah Chadwell, but the Chadwells needed someone to take it over, so St. Anthony’s parish, which is located down from the school, agreed with Benzo at the helm.
“When I was teaching, I worked morning duty on Mondays, when we served breakfast,” she said. “It was very obvious what children hadn’t eaten or eaten much over the weekend. I knew it was a problem so the other teachers and I would share that with the cafeteria staff, and they would sneak an extra helping or two to those children.”
Today, teachers and the principal identify what students need the Friday food. Like much of the state the need is great. More than half of the children in Brooke County Schools qualify for the free or reduced meal program.
Benzo and her team came up with a plan. Each month the parish includes in their offertory envelopes a special envelope specifically for the Friday Friends Program. The people in the pews and even the homebound parishioners who receive the envelopes overwhelmed Benzo and the church staff with their outpouring of support.
“Because of the generosity of our parishioners we are able to fund this program far into the future,” Janet McFadden, parish secretary said. The response is so positive that the parish set up a fund restricted for the purpose of the Friday Friends program. McFadden said God is truly blessing the parish to bless these “children in dire need of our help.”
Parishioner Nancy Deters accompanies Benzo on her many trips to Costco in Pittsburgh.
“We pack every nook and cranny of the car,” Deters said. “Most trips Janet is literally buried in the front seat with boxes and boxes of food on her lap and around her feet. It’s a 30-minute drive! Once we are back at St. Anthony, we have to unpack her!”
Benzo and Deters then work with a crew to unpack and organize the food. Wednesdays are bag packing days for the group. They carefully select the items for breakfast, lunch, and dinner plus snacks for two days.
“I’d do anything for her,” Deters said. “She’s my mentor and my hero.”
Deters was a student of Benzo, then a student-teacher under her, a colleague, and now they are fellow retirees.
“It is air to say this endeavor is in the spirit of who we are,” Deters said,
Mass, scripture verses, and songs all motivate us to do for others, she said, “Specifically, the song “Here I am, Lord” moves me.”
The song is about being called by God to be the light of Christ for others.
Because of Benzo’s example, Deters also heads the effort for the parish’s Jesse Tree at Christmas that benefits the same children, but with wonderful presents that the parishioners purchase especially for each child.
“Ladies like these are so important to a parish and community,” Fr. Jude Perera, pastor of St. Anthony said. “They don’t seek to be highlighted publicly. They are truly acting out of the spirit of Christ. That is what makes this effort so dear.”
He quoted Matthew 6:3, “But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”
Just as the bags of food are taken directly to a staff member at the local school, who then sees to it that they are inconspicuously placed into the children’s backpacks, the St. Anthony parishioners are just as secretive.
“They do this very discreetly, not for reward or to be recognized,” he said. “They are giving hope.”
To give to the Friday Friends or to find out more to start your own program contact St. Anthony Parish at firstname.lastname@example.org.