Sheila Grove

ERIE, PA. — What began with a puzzling experience for a student at Mercyhurst Prep School in Erie ended up launching a program now celebrating 20 years of good works.

Illan Carranza, Brigid Ochalek and Deacon Matthew
Ochalek preparing to "Feed the Hungry"
Photo/Sheila Grove

As MPS President Ed Curtin tells the story, student Chris Stadler was eating his lunch in downtown Erie when he felt inspired to offer his sandwich to someone who appeared to be in need. The offer was declined.

Confused by the experience, Stadler brought up the incident with his English teacher, Terry Healy, who surmised it was possible the man did not want to deprive Stadler of his lunch. Healy suggested Stadler take extra sandwiches the next time he planned to have lunch in Perry Square.   

Stadler not only accepted the suggestion, but recruited a few friends to do the same. They shared their sandwiches and company with those who accepted them. The awareness of the need and the dignity of those who have need, prompted Stadler and his friends to begin what is now known as Feed the Hungry.”  

With the help of Nancy Zimmerman, then service coordinator, the students arranged to provide a hot Sunday meal once a month for the guests of the Upper Room of Erie located at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ on Peach Street. They raised money to purchase food, prepared the meal at MPS and served it at St. Paul's. Kerry Sedelmeyer, guidance counselor, offered her assistance and continues to be actively involved. Deacon Matthew Ochalek, who is now Mercyhurst’s chaplain and theology department chair in addition to his long-time role as theology teacher, assumed the coordinator and faculty moderator duties upon Zimmerman’s retirement.  

On the second Sunday of each month, Deacon Ochalek purchases the food and then relies on Sedelmeyer, a core group of students and a steady stream of additional student volunteers to help prepare the meal, deliver it to St. Paul's and serve anywhere from 60-100 guests. After their hearty meal, guests are offered peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to take with them. Metz the school’s food service provider donates and prepares holiday turkeys. Any leftover food is donated to the Erie City Mission.    

Ochalek and Sedelmeyer both expressed profound respect for the level of commitment the students have demonstrated and how generously donations are offered throughout the year. In addition, jeans day fundraisers at MPS rise to a greater level of significance when students know that Feed the Hungry is the beneficiary.

Nikita Krasilnikov prepares sandwiches "to go"
for guests to take with them after their meal.
Photo/Sheila Grove

That students are more than fulfilling service requirements is evident.  They are engaged. They interact well and freely with their dinner guests, and maintain significant responsibilities and commitment. MPS has many international students who benefit from adding this and other service opportunities to their American experience.   

 Senior Nikita Krasilnikov shared, “I always come help, even if I don’t need service hours. I love the atmosphere. I feel it is very important to do such projects because in my country, Russia, we don’t do it. Here we talk to people who don’t have homes and give them support. I am happy that at least I can participate while in America.” 

 I love to help the community,” reflected senior, Illan Carranza.This is one of the best ways I have found to interact with people. There is nothing better than cooking food and giving it to people and seeing them smile.  

As students in a Mercy School, they are well versed in the Mercy charisms espoused by the founder of the Sisters of Mercy, Catherine McAuley. The Mercy charism core values: compassionate presence, justice, service, hospitality and concern for the dignity of all persons, permeate the school community and the curriculum.

Junior Teresa Zou takes these values seriously. “I am not Catholic, but I take theology classes on Catholic beliefs. This service corresponds to the critical concerns of Mercy. It is important to participate and help others.   

Referencing the significant commitment that each member of the team has made to this ongoing project, Ochalek reflected, “I don’t know how we could call ourselves a Mercy school if we didn’t do something like this.

Teresa Zou shares sandwich duty.
Photo/Sheila Grove