March 5, 2021

A trip with a cooler leads to a journey of offering hope

Andrew Costello, second from left, leads a prayer on the night of Feb. 21, 2013, as members of Operation Leftover take to the streets of downtown Indianapolis to provide food, clothing and conversation with people who are homeless. The group of young adult Catholics dedicated to helping the homeless is based at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis. Costello prays with a man who is homeless, left, and two other members of the group, Michael Gramke, second from right, and Kellye Cramsey. Costello is stepping aside as coordinator of the ministry to focus on his family.  (File photo by John Shaughnessy)

Andrew Costello, second from left, leads a prayer on the night of Feb. 21, 2013, as members of Operation Leftover take to the streets of downtown Indianapolis to provide food, clothing and conversation with people who are homeless. The group of young adult Catholics dedicated to helping the homeless is based at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis. Costello prays with a man who is homeless, left, and two other members of the group, Michael Gramke, second from right, and Kellye Cramsey. Costello is stepping aside as coordinator of the ministry to focus on his family. (File photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

Andrew Costello’s uplifting journey started when he rolled a cooler filled with leftover picnic food from a parish get-together through the streets of downtown Indianapolis.

As the cooler bumped along behind him, the then-25-year-old Costello looked for anyone who seemed “down on their luck.”

When he met someone, he asked the person if he or she would like something to eat and drink. Then Costello spent a few moments talking with the homeless person—“just to let them know someone cared about them, and that they were not forgotten.”

Costello kept following that simple approach until the cooler was empty. And when he headed home that evening, he had this amazing feeling, a feeling he wanted to continue.

That’s how “Operation Leftover” began. And for the past 11 years, one evening a month, Costello has roamed through downtown Indianapolis in a personal ministry that has grown to involve hundreds of volunteers, embraced the dignity of countless people who are homeless, and touched his life in a way he never imagined.

Now, the 36-year-old Costello is stepping aside as the coordinator of that ministry as he and his wife, Rebecca, are expecting their second child in late March.

“I need to be a dad first,” says the member of St. Joan of Arc Parish in Indianapolis.

While Costello says the grassroots effort will continue, he also reflected upon his time of leading the ministry—a ministry that he believes God called him to start.

“If you are docile to the Holy Spirit, God can will something that will take off like a train,” Costello says.

Sharing that belief leads him to one of his favorite moments of Operation Leftover.

‘Half the battle is being present’

“There was a woman we helped,” he says. “She was on crutches, and she was staying at one of the shelters. She asked me if I was giving out something. I gave her some bus passes. Within 10 months, I learned she was gainfully employed at a furniture store. My understanding was that the bus passes helped her get to work. I needed a new sofa so I went there, and she was very knowledgeable about the product. I got a recliner there, too.”

Besides the new furniture, Costello received a bonus in seeing how God works—including how God seeks people’s help: “We do what we can, and God fills in the gaps behind the scenes. We just need to take the step forward.”

Stepping forward to help is so simple in Operation Leftover that it draws many young adults as volunteers, according to Costello.

“It was just a simple approach—me going down there to talk to people,” he says. “Others saw it was a good thing that brought me joy. They saw they could put themselves out there like I had. And it’s hands-on. Half the battle is being present.”

Another part of the approach is using the creativity and skills that God gives people, he adds. Beyond distributing food and clothing, groups of volunteers also share a list of job prospects “because one of the main reasons for homelessness is job loss.”

“Helping someone out is not a long, drawn-out process,” Costello notes. “It can start with buying someone in need a sandwich at a local deli, having ‘goodie bags’ ready in a vehicle to hand out, purchasing IndyGo bus tickets for medical appointments or job interviews—or paying for a P.O. box so someone can privately receive mail. Be creative with how you help others.”

And never underestimate the power of prayer and God’s mercy to change lives, he says.

“Although I don’t measure the effectiveness of our ministry by numbers, I can safely say that we have helped at least 30 individuals get off the streets, and that may be a modest number,” he says. “I have confidence that our prayers have helped many more achieve autonomy, for we know that prayer changes things.”

‘Be people of forgiveness and compassion’

That combination of faith in God and the need for compassion toward others echoed through the farewell note that Costello recently shared with volunteers and supporters of Operation Leftover.

“Aside from the power of prayer and the effectiveness of God’s mercy, I wanted to remind everyone that the people we serve are regular human beings like you and me,” he wrote. “I have learned that people behave the way that they do because of their life experiences.

“Many of our brothers and sisters on the streets have fallen on hard times due to a plethora of reasons: mental health, chronic illness, loss of a job, broken family relationships. I implore all of you to be people of forgiveness and compassion.”

Costello praised the hundreds of volunteers, thanking them for their “time, talent, treasure and sacrifices” to help and interact with people who are homeless.

He especially focused on Juan Aguilar, a volunteer for the past five years who will be the new coordinator of Operation Leftover. He also thanked Father Rick Nagel, the pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis, for letting the group use the downtown faith community as its base.

“I’ve always been impressed by his great zeal and love for the poor,” Father Nagel says about Costello. “As a young adult, he’s had a steadfast commitment to the community that God called him to serve. He’s had a great gift there, and I’m grateful to see how he did it all for the Lord.”

Costello is thankful for the gift of these 11 years, too. He shares one more story of success and one more request.

“I cannot tell you how much a consistent commitment to Christian charity and humility can change a person’s life. One of our volunteers who passed away significantly turned his life around after he got out of prison because of the love and support of his family.

“Please be open to forgiving others. That’s what Christ did for us, even though we didn’t deserve it.” †

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