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Once addicted to heroin, this minister is now helping others as one of Philly's hunger fighters

Alfred Lubrano, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Religious News

PHILADELPHIA – On the worst day of Vito Baldini’s life, after scuffling on the streets of Philadelphia with drug addictions that were pushing him toward the grave, he was spotted outside a ShopRite by an old friend’s mother.

“Vito?” she asked, staring at the barely recognizable 23-year-old in his emaciated dissipation. “She saw me as no longer human,” Baldini, now 42, recalled, “but as a junkie who would never get better. The way she looked into me burnt into my soul.”

Within two years, he started clawing his way upward from that rock-bottom moment. He became a minister who helps those experiencing homelessness, and battles the pandemic by distributing food to hundreds of low-income Philadelphians.

“I was lost and scared and didn’t know how to live life,” Baldini said. “But I found something I needed: to commit myself to helping others.

“I love who I am today.”

Baldini isn’t alone in his thinking.

Among the city’s hunger fighters, the ordained cleric of the Protestant Reformed Church in America is known as a giant-hearted whirlwind who can comfort the destitute as easily as he can explain to financial donors why their largesse is critical. He’s the founder of Small Things, a nonprofit that distributes food from a 75,000-square-foot warehouse in Roxborough.

Since the pandemic hit, Baldini has transformed his organization from a tiny charity that gave out meals once a year to a six-day-a-week juggernaut that disbursed a “ridiculous” (Baldini’s word) 2.68 million pounds of food from last March through December alone.

“Vito and Small Things are an incredible example of an organization that has stepped up during the pandemic,” said Loree Jones, CEO of Philabundance, the hunger-relief agency that supplies food to Baldini’s organization. “They grew to a full-time operation since the onset of COVID.

“And it’s clear to me that Vito’s personal story informs what he does and how he does it. He brings a compassion, dedication, and empathy to his service, which is admirable and inspiring. He’s incredible.”

So many agree: “He got me sober and off the street,” said Sean Wiggins, 55, a formerly homeless man who’s done some work at Small Things. “He has a heart of gold and has fed so many people in such a short amount of time.

“All he wants to do is help others. Vito is my man.”

Born in Overbrook into a blue-collar family, Baldini graduated from Archbishop John Carroll High School in Radnor in 1998. The youngest of four kids, he said: “We weren’t a perfect family. I saw drugs as a way out.”

After starting college at Cabrini University, Baldini moved swiftly from weed to ecstasy, acid, cocaine, opioid pills, and finally, heroin. He dropped out by his second semester.

What followed was a down-bound haze of five or six years. “I reached a point of saying, ‘This is who I am, a junkie who will never get better,’” Baldini said.

He was arrested twice — once for possession of marijuana, another time for illegally selling firearms, the latter of which brought a sentence of 24 months’ probation.

Capable of outrageous acts to pay his drug dealers, Baldini stole the gift-laden Christmas cards given to his schoolteacher sister by the parents of her students. Another time, he emptied the contents of his nephew’s piggy bank.

On the last night he got high — Jan. 12, 2004 — Baldini stole razor blades from a supermarket and sold them to guys in a bar. For some reason, he saw that petty theft as the final straw, and he got into rehab.

 

“I just looked up to God and said, ‘OK, I’ll try it your way.’”

And that was it.

Baldini earned a college degree from Cairn University in Langhorne Manor, Bucks County, and a master’s from Missio Seminary in Spring Garden in Philadelphia.

He went to work at Liberti Church near Rittenhouse Square, where homeless people were sleeping on the steps.

Baldini had an easy manner with people who did without because he’d suffered, too. He understood instinctively that he could begin relationships with people through food.

“I’m Italian, fed by my grandmother,” he said. “Food is how people connect. I can’t solve poverty, but I can give someone their next meal. And to me that small act of love and kindness leads to change.”

He offered meals with no strings attached. Ultimately, he began volunteering at Bethesda Project, a Center City homelessness service provider and shelter.

“He had a deep connection to our guests at Bethesda,” said the organization’s CEO, Tina Pagotto. “He invited them to get involved at Liberti Church. He views meals as an entry point to forming relationships.

“Vito is good people.”

Baldini began Easter Outreach, a feeding program that gave away 148,400 meals every Easter for 10 years. Last year, he left his church to work with a network of churches. Then, the pandemic hit, and he came up with Small Things.

The name is based on a quote from Mother Teresa: “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”

That Baldini has become a success after such personal travail is no small feat to Adan Mairena, pastor of West Kensington Ministry.

“I usually see the other side of that story,” Mairena said, “of people who try to make it but don’t. But Vito’s life is one of transformation, and that’s impressive.”

Mairena said Baldini delivers food to West Kensington with his sleeves rolled up: “He’s very hands-on, and he just wants to give away all that food as fast as he can, without red tape.”

After every delivery, Mairena said, “we call each other ‘brother’ and we say, ‘I love you.’”

Baldini just seems to inspire that kind of emotion: “I see God working inside him,” said Pastor Gabriel Wang-Herrera of By Grace Alone Christian Reformed Church in Frankford.

“His is just an amazing story.”

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