The first time Chris Broas requested a permit to hold the H.O.P.E. Picnic for 150 people in a Columbus, Ohio, park, an official asked who was attending.
Knowing that some might frown upon her "guest list," she replied, "Some good friends of mine."
That wasn't really a lie. She just didn't mention her friends were homeless.
"You get real creative when your feathers are in the fire, and mine have been in the fire several times," said Broas, a member of Peace Lutheran Church in suburban Gahanna.
One early trial by fire occurred when picnic organizers neatly stacked bags of garbage near trash cans after the event. They were fined, but Broas wheeled and dealed so they could perform community service instead.
The H.O.P.E. Picnic has since evolved into a well-oiled event. It draws nearly 2,000 homeless every year, not just for food but for fellowship and basic needs. Guests can get haircuts, eyeglasses, diabetes screenings, HIV testing, dental services, flu shots and other health care — all for free. This year's picnic (with worship) is Sept. 14 outside Veterans Memorial Hall in downtown Columbus.
A need for more than food
The event grew out of the Homeless Outreach Programs and Events (H.O.P.E.) started by Broas and four other Peace members in 2004. With the blessing of their pastor, Kai Nilsen, the volunteers took food, clothing and blankets to homeless camps under viaducts and near the river downtown.
Broas soon learned the homeless craved something else. "They were always glad to get food, but the need was more for companionship and being able to interact with someone, that gift of human touch," she said.
The homeless also longed to hang out with their friends. But when they tried, it was called loitering and they were dispersed. "It's an illegal gathering and, suddenly, people are nervous," Broas said. "So they wanted a chance to get together and connect."
And so the annual H.O.P.E. Picnic was born in 2005, and the heart-tugging stories followed.
The first year that vision care was offered, a man got his free eyeglasses and sat down to read a magazine, just like in any doctor's waiting room. A volunteer told him he was finished and could go. "He said, 'Yeah, I know, but I haven't been able to read in years because I haven't been able to see,' " Broas recalled.
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