Community service exceeds classroom expectations

Seniors Angelo Gurcsik and Mark Zandanel surpass homeless outreach goal with more than 250 “blessing bags”

St. Augustine Prep seniors and Washington Township residents Angelo Gurcsik (left) and Mark Zandanel have collected materials, such as tooth brushes, shampoo and conditioner, socks, snacks and more, for more than 250 “blessing bags” to donate to the region’s homeless.

St. Augustine Prep seniors Angelo Gurcsik and Mark Zandanel of Washington Township began volunteering at The Unforgotten Haven in Blackwood this summer to fulfill the school’s required 100 hours of community service prior to graduation. With an initial goal of collecting donations for 250 “blessing bags,” filled with daily essentials beneficial to individuals who are homeless in the Camden and Philadelphia areas, the two surpassed their goal and have decided to continue their efforts with hopes of creating at least 400 bags for those in need.

According to Gurcsik, the “Caritas Project,” falling in line with the all-boy’s school motto, “Veritas, Unitas, Caritas” — meaning truth, unity and love — asks seniors to give back to their communities with an act of charity prior to graduation in the spring. After hearing about The Unforgotten Haven’s trips to Camden and Philadelphia every Sunday at 8 a.m. to hand out “blessing bags” to the homeless, both Gurcsik and Zandanel agreed to partner, calling it a “perfect fit.”

The collection of fundamental materials for the blessing bags, such as toothbrushes, small shampoos and conditioners, soap, travel toothpastes, floss, socks, pocket tissues, deodorant and more began in June, while the seniors also regularly made visits to The Unforgotten Haven to assist in organizing and sorting donated items, such as clothing and food. Along with the essential products, each bag also contained two small snacks for its recipients.

“It’s basically things everyone needs, but some people can’t afford them or have access to them,” Zandanel said.

“I hope this project makes it easier for people to bounce back and get back on their feet,” Gurcsik said. “This is one less thing they have to worry about buying with their own money.”

Gurcsik and Zandanel submitted their final project to their school at the start of the school year, however with an abundance of donations left over, the two decided they would continue to collect and assemble bags until they felt they had completed their mission.

“We’re keeping it going because we haven’t felt done yet,” Zandanel said. “We’re still getting donations and calls to donate. We don’t want to just cut it off because of a deadline, we want to keep it going and do as much as we can.”

According to The Unforgotten Haven Founder Michelle Gambone, the non-profit organization began gathering blessing bags three years ago through its homeless outreach programs. Gambone said accomplishing the goal of 400 blessing bags would be substantial, boosting just how much more could be done.

“For high school students to take that under their wing and get that many donations, it’s amazing,” Gambone said. “They have service hours they have to accomplish, but they made it clear they want to come back and continue to help.”

Gurcsik and Zandanel said to collect donations, they sent a letter to friends, neighbors and local businesses requesting the help of the community. Through their efforts, the partners received numerous offers for material donations, as well as various monetary donations from both local and corporate companies.

“The homeless population in general seems to get glanced over,” Gurcsik said. “You can give them a dollar or some food and snacks once in awhile, but you don’t realize they need these essentials, they don’t have these things, and that doesn’t typically go through your mind.”

Zandanel said he looks forward to the day when they have the opportunity to hand-deliver the blessing bags to the homeless, predicting it will be a “humbling experience.”

Gambone said the students would have the chance to join the organization on an upcoming trip to Philadelphia, dropping bags off in the area of 15th Street and JFK Boulevard, across from Love Park.

“I want to tell them just because it was mandatory and you completed the hours, don’t stop, because you made a difference,” Gambone said. “Continue to support charities and organizations that are making a change in the world because you’re changing the life of 400 people in one day. Do it from your heart. We need that in our world right now.”

If interested in making a donation to Gurcsik and Zandanel, email gurcsik.angelo@hermits.org, or zandanel.mark@hermits.org. To learn more about The Unforgotten Haven, visit www.unforgottenhaven.org.