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St. Anthony's nurse turns a moment into momentum for the homeless

Katie Keegan, center, hands out her blessing bags at The Society of St. Vincent de Paul in St. Petersburg. Keegan, a nurse at St. Anthony's Hospital, collected clothes, bathroom products and other items to give to people. .EVE EDELHEIT   |   Times
Katie Keegan, center, hands out her blessing bags at The Society of St. Vincent de Paul in St. Petersburg. Keegan, a nurse at St. Anthony's Hospital, collected clothes, bathroom products and other items to give to people. .EVE EDELHEIT | Times
Published Nov. 28, 2017

About a year and a half ago, a patient was discharged from St. Anthony's Hospital on a cold day. He told his nurse, Katie Keegan, he didn't have any personal items. He asked her if she could help him get a jacket.

Keegan, stunned he had come in with nothing, asked her manager if she could help find a jacket and on her break, called her sister and asked if she could round up a few toiletries.

"What I noticed shortly after in the weeks following that I consistently had patients coming into the hospital with zero personal items and I felt like there was a need in our community to help this population," Keegan said.

Keegan started bringing toiletries and supplies in, hoping to help fill the need she saw in the homeless population served at the hospital.

One man thanked her, she said, but told her he could only transport items that would fit in his backpack.

Keegan got the idea to create "blessing bags" — gallon-sized ziploc bags filled with socks and toothbrushes, deodorants and wipes, hand sanitizers, granola bars, water bottles and other toiletries to give to the Society of St. Vincent De Paul's, an organization that serves the homeless population St. Anthony's frequently treats.

Dorothy Bruce, Keegan's manager, said Keegan approached her with the idea and they started a drive last year, filling more than 50 bags with donations and collecting blankets from staff at St. Anthony's.

When they went to hand out the bags at St. Vincent De Paul's, Bruce arrived slightly late. By the time she arrived, they had run out.

"Never did we imagine that the need would be greater than that," she said.

This year, they collected enough for more than 100 blessing bags.

Sheila Lopez, Chief Operating Officer for St. Vincent De Paul's, said the blessing bags fill an essential need.

"We try very hard to give our clients what they need," she said. "We don't have all the money in the world, so we depend on our community partners."

Keegan never saw the man again, but thinks of him often, she said.

"It's funny," she said. "You have patients here in the hospital I could tell you so many intricate details about every person on the floor, every scratch, what they like to eat for lunch, how many steps they took today, and then they're discharged and you just hope that they're doing well and you can pray for them."

That man, she said, and some of her other patients opened her eyes.

"They lived such wonderful lives and something in their life maybe changed the path that they were on, but they're very inspiring people," she said. "Every person, no matter who they are, deserves to be treated with kindness and compassion. I just really wanted to help."

Lopez said the clients at St. Vincent's are appreciative of Keegan's donations, but equally so of her visits.

"You know what means the most to them is that people don't look at them differently," she said.

Contact Divya Kumar at dkumar@tampabay.com.