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‘Basket Brigade’ Remembers Homebound Seniors on Mother’s Day

June 24, Chicago – To outsiders, they might appear to be a typical monthly book club, and so they were – until about 17 years ago. At one meeting, Sister Anastasia, OP, suggested that the members “also do something other-centered.” In response, they began to assemble baskets of food and other treats to give to homebound senior women living on Chicago’s West Side. They became the Basket Brigade.

Five of the original Basket Brigade members continue to participate: Sisters Joyce Banks, OP; Helen Therese Mayer, OP; Anastasia McNichols, OP; Mary Rita McSweeney, OP; and Joan Marie Weithman, OP. Also participating are Sisters Louise Borgacz, OP; Anita Chiappetta, OP; and Sally Fergus, OP.

Sister Mary Rita ministers with 100 homebound seniors through a special program of Marillac Social Center, a non-profit agency sponsored by the Daughters of Charity and serving families of Chicago since 1914. Each year, Sister Mary Rita chooses the oldest 24 of the women – typically between the ages of about 85 and 99 – to receive the Mother’s Day baskets.

The baskets include foods such as ham, tuna, cans of stew, spaghetti and meatballs, raisins, jello, pudding, crackers, cookies and candy.  Sometimes they also include non-edible treats, such as hand cream. “They treasure anything,” Sister Mary Rita said of the recipients. “They don’t have any grocery stores on the west side.”

The Basket Brigade’s ministry is systematic as well as heart-felt. Sister Mary Rita said they prepare 24 baskets because so many items come in packages of 12. The task of purchasing the items is divided among the members. “Each Sister is usually assigned to buy one large item and two smaller items,” she explained. The group members then gather to assemble the baskets of food, and four of the Sisters make the deliveries, usually on the Thursday or Friday before Mother’s Day.

Included in each basket is a flyer, wishing the recipient a happy Mother’s Day and inviting her to return the basket once it’s empty – so that she can receive a basket the next year. “One woman dumped everything out of the basket as soon as she got it and returned [the empty basket] right away,” Sister Mary Rita said.

Originally, the Basket Brigade distributed their baskets on Christmas as well as Mother’s Day, Sister Mary Rita said. Over the years, however, they decided to focus only on Mother’s Day. “The seniors are well remembered at Christmas,” she explained. Schools and parishes bring gifts, and about 50 local Adrian Dominicans adopt a senior in Marillac’s senior program.

Sister Mary Rita explained that, while Mother’s Day is a special day for her seniors, the general public doesn’t rally then as they do at Christmas time. “Mother’s Day is big in any community, but especially in African-American communities,” she said. “It’s the biggest day of the year.”

The seniors are quick to show their appreciation to the Basket Brigade. Sister Rita said that one woman told her, “You’re the only one who remembered me this year.”The seniors are “ecstatic” when Sister Anastasia sends them a birthday card, she added. Sometimes, that’s the only birthday card they receive.

Along with their outreach to seniors, members of the Basket Brigade continue to enjoy the companionship they received from their book club. They still meet monthly, September to June, and to share their insights from the books they read or the videos they watch.