FAIRFIELD—Every third Friday morning you’ll find a lively group of students and staff from Saint Catherine Academy and volunteers from the Order of Malta engaged in a signature project: the creation of 300 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for Thomas Merton Center in Bridgeport.
“This is a project that provides a sense of purpose in multiple ways,” says Helen Burland, executive director, who proposed the community service idea—called “PB&J Fridays”—shortly after she came to Saint Catherine Center. “Our students are on the receiving end of so much service and generosity. We wanted them to experience the joy of giving back as well,” commented Burland. The Order of Malta was a willing partner, as it promotes hands-on involvement in the organizations that they support. Four or five volunteers from the order currently participate each month. The Center has even had guest “chefs,” including Bishop Caggiano.
Saint Catherine Academy is part of Saint Catherine Center for Special Needs in Fairfield, which serves students and young adults with developmental and physical disabilities, including autism.
Students and staff set up long tables in the gym at Saint Catherine Center and Malta volunteers bring in the supplies. The assembly line forms in a familiar symmetry: stacks of bread, peanut butter spreaders, jelly dippers and smoothers, sandwich-cutters, bag-inserters and packagers. Some students help as they can unsealing the sandwich bags and getting them ready. Soon music is playing and the room begins to smell like whole wheat and peanuts. There’s a sense of purpose, but also of fun. You hear a lot of laughter, as well as words of encouragement at every station.
“There’s a role for everyone, whatever their ability,” says Burland. The project helps the students of Saint Catherine Academy learn practical motor skills, as well as the value and importance of patience and teamwork.
“PB&J Day is so good!” says Philip, an Academy student who works the line every month.
The students also have the added benefit of seeing their efforts delivered to others in need. After the sandwiches are prepared, they are loaded into the van and students deliver them to Merton Center, where they are received with gratitude.
“We figure after 11 years, we’ve made more than 30,000 sandwiches,” says Burland. But in a project filled with this much generosity, who’s counting.
Saint Catherine Center for Special Needs includes Saint Catherine Academy, a state-approved, private special education school in Fairfield, Conn., serving students ages 5-21 of all faiths who are impacted with autism, intellectual, and developmental disabilities. It also includes an Adult Day Program, approved by the Department of Developmental Services, which offers opportunities for adults with disabilities to learn new skills and participate in vocational and community-based activities. The Office of Parish & Community Support at the Center serves as a resource for members of parishes throughout the Diocese of Bridgeport. For more information, visit the website at StCatherineCenter.org, call 203-540-5381, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.