On the first weekend of spring in downtown Schenectady, volunteers gathered at Vale Park to serve a line of people stretching out of the park to receive canned goods, clothing, shoes and other essential items.
The volunteers were working with Street Soldiers, a grassroots organization that provides hot meals and essentials to the homeless and less fortunate.
The organization was founded in 2016 by Selkirk residents Renee and Mike Fahey. Shortly after its inception, Street Soldiers expanded to Troy and now, recently, to Schenectady.
Every Sunday, from 4 to 5 p.m., volunteers set up tables at the park and cover them with fruit and vegetables, canned and boxed foods, jackets, winter boots and water bottles and distribute them to the people who line up on a first-come, first-served basis.
Street Soldiers conducts a majority of its work via social media, said Schenectady organizer Maura Furey.
Many people who stand in the Sunday line come repeatedly and get to know the volunteers on at least a first name basis.
The people in line vary: some are homeless, some are currently or have in the past struggled with addiction, and some need simply need an emergency donation because they just got a new job and need new clothes, or food for a home they just moved into. Street Soldiers doesn’t judge and doesn’t discriminate, Furey said.
Usually, Furey said, the group is asked for a specific item, such as baby food or supplies or toiletries. She then uses social media to put out a call for that item.
“It’s completely grassroots. We try to figure out their individual needs,” the Schenectady resident said.
Sunday was the seventh time Street Soldiers has gathered in Schenectady, but the first time the event has been held in the park itself.
Previously, there was too much snow in the park to set up the tables and volunteers were forced to set up on the sidewalk just outside of the park. But missing a Sunday is not an option. Volunteers spend all week prepping for Sunday afternoons.
“If they count on us, we’re there. Rain or shine,” Furey said. Two weekends ago there were about 53 people who stood in line and Furey estimated that there were about 60 in line on Sunday.
Raquel Santiago Parker, another organizer for Street Soldiers, said for her, getting involved with helping people is not a hobby, but both a personal and a religious responsibility.
“As Christians, we need to help one another. When we help each other, things change,” she said.
Street Soldiers, Santiago Parker said, places an emphasis on providing people with items they urgently need. For example, she said, the group recently gave a mother winter blankets for her home, and gave a pregnant woman a car seat.
“We’re giving them the tools to make them prepared, and hopefully self-sufficient,” she said.
Robert Rogers, a Schenectady resident who has been visiting the Street Soldiers line for the past few weeks, also volunteers for the organization.
He discovered the effort a few weeks ago when he was walking by the park. Rogers recently purchased a house and has relied on Street Soldiers to provide him with a few necessities as he navigates the moving process.
“They’re very nice people. They do accommodate everything,” Rogers said.
The people at Street Soldiers, he said, are special. Their priority to make people feel comfortable enough to come as often as they need to, and to tell their friends and family about it.
Rogers does his part to spread the word by passing out fliers. The crowd on Sunday was the largest he had seen yet, and he hopes that more people will take advantage of the service.
“I would tell them, ‘Hey, go over there.’ People are friendly, they’re not going to judge you. Everybody needs some help every now and then,” he said.