Mona Shield Payne
Monday, Sept. 10, 2012 | 2 a.m.
It’s almost 7 p.m. on a scorching late-August Monday, and a line of homeless men and women stretches two blocks along G Street.
Some in line are rail thin, covered in the grime of life on the street, others push strollers with their children in them, and others are in wheelchairs. They’ve ended up here because of unforeseen illnesses, past mistakes or a combination of both. All are in need of nourishment and a helping hand.
Across the street, a group of Nellis Air Force Base airmen dressed in camouflage uniforms hovers around a cracked asphalt basketball court at G Street and McWilliams Avenue. None has been here previously. The intersection is a forgotten patch of land shrouded behind the decorated walls of Interstate 15 and overrun with concrete and weeds and surrounded by withered homes.
Many of the airmen have been at the corner for 15 minutes. They keep to themselves. Tables are missing, and they’re not sure what to do.
“I hope we weren’t supposed to bring the tables,” says one of them.
The airmen are far from their gated world at Nellis, but they’re here to complete a duty — to help at home, same as abroad. They’re here to assist St. Benedict’s Homeless Ministry and feed the homeless, and they now perform their duty every last Monday of the month.
The Nellis airmen joined the initiative in March. Since then, Senior Master Sgt. Richard Buchalski said they’ve helped the ministry feed more than 1,500 people.
“It’s unbelievable how (no Air Force personnel) had bothered to come down here,” Buchalski said. “Half the guys serve in Iraq or serve our nation abroad, but they forget to serve the nation at home, too.”
Buchalski arrives at 7 p.m. Two fold-up tables jut out in the back of his pickup. Finally, the tables arrive. Behind him, another truck is filled with 24-packs of water bottles, and a stack of cafeteria serving pans filled with chili mac.
The airmen spring into action.
Buchalski discovered the program one evening when he came home to his wife making 220 peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches.
“I said, ‘That’s a lot of bread, that’s a lot of jelly,’” Buchalski recalled, teasing his wife.
His wife explained that her employer, Keller-Williams Realty, was assisting St. Benedict’s Homeless Ministry feed homeless on G Street. She urged her husband to tag along.
Buchalski said the experience was humbling.
“I was amazed because everyone kept coming up to me saying, ‘Thank you for your service.’ I’m like, ‘Thank you. I’m sorry, whatever you need,’” Buchalski said. “It was weird, I came out here to help them and they’re greeting me.”
After the event, Buchalski approached the Rev. John McShane, who runs the ministry, to see how the military could help. Buchalski learned the program had been going on its 12th year.
According to a 2009 homeless survey, there are more than 3,000 people living on the streets of the city. Every Monday, McShane leads a group from the ministry into this bypassed section of the city to help a sliver of those homeless.
The evenings aren’t used to convert the homeless or help them find God; the ministry and volunteers just come to offer food, socks, underwear, soap and other necessities.
“Our objective is to do a little bit and try to simplify their lives for one night,” McShane said. “…We just try to do the best we can … to take care of the bodies of these men and women.”
Buchalski decided it was time for the military to help. He pitched the concept to the Nellis Air Force Top-3 Council to make it a basewide event. The council agreed, offering to pitch in $100 a month for food and water. Buchalski promised to bring the tables.
“It’s been really positive. We’ve been able to come out here and do something for the community and people that aren’t as well off as we are,” said Master Sgt. Lisa Castillo, the council treasurer. “Everybody is just so grateful for what we’re doing, it’s really rewarding to come out.”
Each month volunteers sign up through email. McShane is thrilled to have the military help.
“We’re happy they’re with us,” McShane said. “… The first time they came, it was kind of a surprise. … It has worked out extremely well.”
The main event
By 7:30 p.m., the feast is ready and the smell of dough and cheese fills the air.
The airmen and ministry's tables are crowded with hardboiled eggs, pizza, hot dogs, salad, chili mac, bread, turkey-and-cheese sandwiches and water. McShane blesses the food, and the line, which has grown more than 250 people deep, lurches into motion like a train leaving a station.
The airmen chat with the homeless as they scoop a hearty spoonful of chili mac onto their overstuffed Styrofoam plates. Other airmen collect trash and pass out bagged lunches to those in the back of the line.
Castillo said she met a man who had served as a military police officer before he got into trouble and ended up homeless.
Castillo said she also brought her squadron to volunteer in July.
“It was kind of cool to get some of our folks out here,” Castillo said. “It was almost like team building while at the same time we were helping the community.”
By 8:15 p.m., the line has cleared out and the food has been devoured. Several airmen stick around chatting with the few homeless that remain. Castillo said there are a couple people she tends to talk to every visit. She doesn't know many of their names, but she remembers Kathy Washington.
Washington serenaded the airmen as they set the tables earlier. She lives on a mattress along the street. She said she lost her home and job after she was diagnosed with cancer a year ago and has been relegated to a wheelchair. But she refuses to feel sorry for herself. She talks of faith and sees goodness and hope in everything.
"It’s such a blessing that they come with love and peace," Washington said. "They talk to everybody. They have jobs and homes and families, but they take time to come out here."
Soon both airmen and homeless go their separate ways: the homeless back to their world on the street, and the airmen back to the gated Air Force base.
Still the experience of the day won’t be forgotten. Staff Sgt. Brittany Behnke said it was her first time volunteering, and she is already making plans for her squadron to feed the homeless.
“It’s a great feeling,” Behnke said. “I know I’m going to work to tell everybody about it. I’ve been telling them already that they’re all going to be coming out here with me.”
On Sept. 24, a new group of military personnel will be waiting on the corner for a table to arrive, and a chance to help their country.