Parker seniors assemble food, supplies for homeless

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Sometimes a little teamwork goes a long way.

The adage is proven true on a regular basis at Parker Assisted Living by Morningstar, a retirement community that opened in September on the southeast corner of Mainstreet and Dransfeldt Road. Once a month, 10 to 12 seniors gather in the dining area to assemble bagged lunches for those living on the streets of Denver.

Janel Berilgen, executive chef for Parker Assisted Living and creator of the program, is among the staff members who break out the goodies needed to get the project done. She starts each table with bowls of jelly, jars of peanut butter and plenty of bread. Pretty soon, stacks of PBJs begin to form, as the residents and visitors busily chatter away.

Among them is Chuck Reid, a spry 80-year-old who keeps things entertaining through witticisms and jokes. He sits across from Lois Verkler, 87, who has done her fair share of volunteer work throughout her life and shows no signs of stopping. Her daughter frequently brings her to Parker Assisted Living to join in the many activities.

It was Berilgen’s mother who got the ball rolling on the homeless project five years ago. Instead of exchanging gifts for Christmas, they decided to hand out handmade burritos to homeless citizens on Colfax Avenue and in the area of the Capitol building. Berilgen then brought the idea to a retirement home near Boulder, where she was an employee.

“It gives them a sense of purpose, and them helping the community back, and is one of their favorite things to do,” she said.

Food is not the only necessity included in the bags. The volunteers also pack in toothpaste, toothbrushes, bottled water, and sometimes, hats, gloves, headbands, crocheted blankets and coats. Many of the items are donated; Parker Assisted Living recently partnered with Pepsi and Kraft to help bolster the food supplies.

Berilgen forgoes the traditional route of partnering with a homeless shelter in favor of a more personal approach.

“We do it on our own,” she says. “We go out to the streets and pass them out.”

The philanthropists have gained a grateful following in downtown Denver. They hit areas with large homeless populations, including three shelters near Park Avenue West, and the recipients have become familiar with the group and its regular stops.

It all starts with a few caring hearts and some hard work on the seniors’ assembly line.

“They really enjoy doing it,” Berilgen said.