Friday, December 30, 2011

With a new language, new hopes for the New Year

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Though they’re new to the country and new to the language, clients at our Refugee Center have big plans for their first year in the States.

Several clients shared these plans with us last Thursday during the Refugee Center’s English as a Second Language (ESL) class. Our ESL Coordinator, Birhanu Alemu, leads the class each Thursday, teaching English that emphasizes workplace English.  It is a very community-oriented class, as the students encourage each other in their progress, help translate for each other, and share words from their native language to explain meaning. As newcomers to this country, the students seek a common goal: to build new, fulfilling lives for themselves in the United States.

Language, however, is a major barrier to that goal. To overcome that and other obstacles, many immigrants in the Washington, DC area turn to our Refugee Center for help with housing, employment, English classes, and more.

“Language is my biggest challenge to finding a job,” said Bizaiyhu, one of the students in the class. Bizaiyhu, her husband, and her baby son came to the United States from Israel under political asylum. She had worked as a nurse there, and now hopes to improve her English so that she can continue her career here.

Many immigrants leave much behind them when they come to the United States: their family, their home, their livelihood, and rebuilding their lives can be a slow process. But once they can speak English competently, they can secure better jobs, communicate with more people, and feel more like a part of the American culture, while of course retaining their unique heritages.

This will be the first American New Year for Bizaiyhu and her family, as they arrived in the country just four months ago. She said that in Israel, they observed the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, each September.

“We have special treats to celebrate: apples with honey, because you hope the new year will be sweet like honey, and the head of a fish, because you want to be like the head – on top!” Bizaiyhu said.

As a former refugee, originally from Ethiopia, Birhanu understands the special challenges each of his students are facing. He shared his own memories of Ethiopia’s celebrations, along with Almaz, a new refugee from Ethiopia.  Together, they described Ethiopian New Year’s customs. The holiday is very special there, because it’s one the whole country celebrates, unlike others that are religiously based. People serve special food and drinks for the holiday, and often visit family and give presents to loved ones.

Similar to the United States’ practice of making resolutions, Ethiopians set objectives to reach in the New Year. “The government there encourages people to think greater and do greater in the new year,” Birhanu explained.

How does the ESL class plan to “think greater and do greater” in 2012? Most hope to find jobs and to continue to improve their English. One member of the class, Bijan, has a very particular goal that the ESL class is helping him achieve. An Iranian journalist who was granted political asylum, Bijan turned to the Refugee Center for help in obtaining his social security card, food stamps, and a work permit. 

Now, he is a regular attendee at the ESL class so he can continue his journalism career for English-language media. He writes in Farsi for several online and print news sources, and his journalism has been translated for the New York Times and Washington Post. But he’d like to be able to write in and/or translate to English for himself.

It’s a big dream, but one he feels confident about meeting with the help of Birhanu and the support of the class. Though they hail from different countries and approach the class at different competency levels, they are all working to set achievable goals and better their lives in America.

As far as New Year’s resolutions go, I think that’s a pretty good one. Don’t you?

Want to help newcomers to the United States achieve their goals in 2012? 

Volunteer: Volunteers are welcome to assist with job club, resume building, and community connections. Get more information here.
Donate: Only with the support of the community can we be there for refugees coming to our region. Make a donation directly to the Refugee Center here. 

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Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Christmas Message from Msgr. Enzler

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Greetings on this blessed Christmas Eve,

From all of us at Catholic Charities, Merry Christmas!  We wish you a very happy holiday and offer our most heartfelt appreciation for your support of Catholic Charities throughout this past year.  Even tonight, as I celebrate Mass and remember you in my prayers, and as you and your family prepare your holiday traditions, our Catholic Charities staff will be working in our shelters. There, thanks to you, they will be making sure that everyone has a warm night and can experience some of the joys of Christmas.

Growing up, one of my favorite holiday memories was on Christmas Eve, when my father gathered our family of 13 brothers and sisters, and paused the evening’s celebration to reflect and simply say, “Isn’t this fun?”  And on Christmas day we’d have a cake and we’d sing happy birthday to baby Jesus.  My parents showed us how the Christmas spirit is what life is all about – fun, joy, family.

As I continue through my first Advent season and Christmas here at Catholic Charities, I cannot tell you just how amazed I am at the work our staff is doing. I’ve been lucky enough to have attended several Christmas celebrationsand gift giveaways across our programs, mingling with staff and meeting clients. I cherish being part of this Catholic Charities family, and I have had many moments to step back and say to myself, “Isn’t this fun?”
I am so grateful that you are walking this journey with me to serve and care for our neighbors and families in need. May God bless you and your family this Christmas,

Monsignor John J. Enzler
President and CEO
Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington

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Want to help?


Thursday, December 22, 2011

Home for the Holidays

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It’s been a long wait, but finally Eric Hardy can celebrate Christmas. After living on the streets and staying on friends’ couches and floors for three years, the 26-year-old is about to spend Christmas in his own apartment – complete with his very own Christmas tree.

Just over two months ago, Eric received an apartment through Catholic Charities’ Fortitude Housing program, which provides homeless individuals with their very own fully-furnished apartment. A case manager with Fortitude works one-on-one with each client to overcome the barriers that prevented them from living independently.

Eric describes his case manager Melvin Howard as being “like a father to me.” Melvin, for his part, is quick to point out Eric’s tremendous potential and multiple talents, traits he has always been known for.

Melvin Howard presents Eric with a Christmas present.
Eric said, "This is the first gift I've gotten." 
Growing up, Eric was the oldest child and the only male in his immediate family. He felt huge pressures from his family to be the role model and to be the most successful. On top of the pressures of succeeding, Eric’s family struggled to accept him as an openly gay teenager, which only added to his stress. After graduating high school, the pressure grew too much and he turned to drugs.

The spiral down was quick and led to a falling-out with his family. Despite an addiction to drugs, Eric had his own place and held a steady job. But after seeing the way drugs emaciated his body and how a day could pass without his noticing, Eric made a decision: he was done with drugs.

He quit cold turkey, holing up in his mother’s house for three months to overcome the addiction. Remarkably, his addiction occurred before he was homeless. It was his family’s discomfort with his sexuality that led to him being kicked out of the house. Amazingly, once he was on the streets, Eric was never tempted to relapse.

“How could I buy drugs?” he said. “I had no money. I had to eat. There was no way I could afford to spend money on drugs. And when I saw the some of the same people, and they would call to me to go get high, I knew I wanted more out of my life.”

To look at him, you wouldn’t be able to tell Eric was homeless. Having just turned 26 a few weeks ago, he represents the often invisible plight of young people fighting homelessness. He took meticulous care of himself, making efforts to keep his clothes and appearance clean. Like many young people, he tried hard to hide his homelessness. Eventually, Eric sought help from several programs working with the homeless, including S.O.M.E. And while working with a social worker, Eric was accepted into the Fortitude Housing Program.

In a region where affordable housing is in high demand and short supply, a program like Fortitude can help the chronically homeless to truly recover and get to a place of self-sufficiency. The program is possible in partnership with the District of Columbia government, which launched the initiative in 2008.

For Eric, it’s the nicest apartment he’s ever lived in. He keeps it very neat and organized and has decorated and painted it tastefully. His relationship with his mother and family remains somewhat strained, but he is excited to host them over at his place on Christmas Day. And if you asked him what he was looking forward to most about Christmas, his answer may sound familiar.

“I can’t wait to watch ‘A Christmas Story,’” he said, laughing. “Every year growing up, my family would watch it on Christmas day. It is one of my favorite memories.” Like many of the usual holiday celebrations, it was a tradition he missed out on the last three years.

From here, Eric has big dreams. He’s hoping to open his own day spa and has been volunteering with local business owners to see operations up close. But for now, he’s ready to put his feet up on his own furniture and finally, finally relax at home.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Do-Gooders’ Guide: CHRISTMAS EDITION!

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Santa stopped by last year's Christmas party at Kennedy!
If you ask me (and I know you are), one of the best scenes in Christmas movie history comes at the very end of Scrooged, when Frank Cross (played by Bill Murray) gets positively giddy with goodwill. Through the bizarre circumstances of the film’s plot, Frank’s on live national television, begging all those who are watching from their homes to help make Christmas miracles happen. He says:

“You have to do something, you have to take a chance, you have to get involved. There are people that are having trouble making their miracle happen. There are people who don’t have enough to eat, there are people that are cold. You can go out and say ‘hello’ to these people. You can take an old blanket out of the closet and say, ‘Here.’ You can make them a sandwich and say, ‘Oh, by the way, here!’ I get it now! If you give, then it can happen – then the miracle can happen to you…It can happen every day. You’ve just got to want that feeling.”
Our Angel Tree at the Hickey Center!

Do-Gooders, we know you’re like Frank Cross – we know you want that feeling! Read on for a list of ways you can help all of us at Catholic Charities make miracles happen for our neighbors in need this Christmas holiday.

We have an ongoing need for donations for our Catholic Charities Angel Tree! So many local families have called, asking for help with gifts for their little ones this year – and we want to make sure that every child has a special Christmas surprise. It’s easy to help – pick up a few extra toys, winter clothing items or gift cards while you’re shopping for your loved ones and bring them (unwrapped, please) to the Hickey Center in D.C. Or, if you’d like to adopt a family – or maybe your office, exercise class, child’s classroom would like to adopt a few families – call us at (202) 772-4346.

Our 801 East Men’s Shelter will hold its annual Christmas clothing distribution on December 15 at 4:30 p.m. Volunteers will help pack clothing, distribute it to the men at the shelter and replenish supplies. “It can be fun!” said Paul, Director of our Men’s Shelter Operations. Plus, you’ll be helping people who are homeless stay warm as the temperatures start to dip. If you can help, please contact Selby Spriggs at (202) 561-4014, ext. 102 or Gary Steele at (202) 561-4014, ext. 106. (PS – our New York Avenue’s Men Shelter held a similar clothing drive last month!)
More Christmas fun at our Kennedy Institute

The DC Employment and Adult Education Services, part of our Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Institute, will hold its annual holiday party on December 16 from 6:30-9:30 p.m. In keeping with tradition, all past and present program participants and their families are welcome, so they’ll be expecting a crowd of 50 to 60 people.
Donations: Whether you’re Rachel Ray or a master of pre-prepared food pickup, you can help by donating punch or finger foods such as wings, meatballs, potato salad, and rolls. 
Volunteers: One or two volunteers are needed to help serve food and get clients involved in the festivities.
Contact Chandra Connolly if you can help with donations or are interested in volunteering: or (202) 281-2703.

Also at Kennedy Institute, staff at our Kennedy School want to distribute very special gifts to the kids this year: “glamour bags” filled with toiletries and gifts. The kids at Kennedy struggle with intellectual disabilities, and many have other learning differences or physical disabilities as well; staff hopes that the “glamour bags” will make each one of them feel like a star.
Donations needed by December 19: Perfume and cologne, sunglasses, Axe Body Spray, nail polish and makeup, ties, watches, hat/scarf/gloves sets, Bath and Body Works products, and $5 gift cards to McDonalds.
Contact Donilee Goldsmith for more information on how to donate: .

Sanctuaries for Life (you may remember reading about their life-affirming work here) is holding a Christmas party on December 19 for new and expectant mothers enrolled in the program. Senior Manager Michelle Williams stressed that the lunch will be healthy in nature, since many of the moms are breastfeeding, or still pregnant.
Donations: Staff said they are accepting monetary donations to help defray the cost of lunch – think about having a quick fundraiser at your office or gym to help them out! They also need donations of grocery store gift certificates, diapers and formula to distribute to mothers who are struggling financially to support their families.
Contact Michelle at if you can help out!

For some of the clients at our Refugee Center, this Christmas is their first in the United States! The Center registers about six new refugees each week – last week, they registered seven refugees in one day! Once registered, refugees have access to a broad range of support, including employment orientation, ESL classes and other Catholic Charities resources. Refugee Center staff will hold a luncheon for refugees on December 21, and they hope to be able to provide all clients with gift bags of food and other personal items.
Donations: Food donations from local restaurants are welcome for the luncheon. Donations of gift cards are also appreciated – these give clients at the Refugee Center the opportunity to purchase food and clothing and household items, as many refugees come to the United States with nothing. Finally, metro cards are always welcome to give to clients, in order that they can have transportation to job interviews and other appointments.
Contact Jeanne Atkinson at or (202) 772-4348 if you’d like to contribute.

The halls will be decked at the DC Food Program at our Spanish Catholic Center. Clients who normally receive food from the program will receive a special surprise on December 21 – a full holiday ham, plus a wrapped Christmas present and handmade card! This is all made possible through the support of generous volunteers who donated and wrapped the gifts and made each card. The Spanish Catholic Center has also arranged for flu shots to be available for all clients who qualify. Food Program coordinator Nick Despotidis said there will be plenty of holiday spirit to go around with Christmas music, hats, and more!
Donations: In order to provide a ham to each family who relies on the program for food, the Spanish Catholic Center is seeking donations of ham, or money to purchase them! So please consider helping one of your neighbors in need enjoy a special holiday treat this year.
Volunteers: The food program will need plenty of help to distribute the bags of food, interact with clients, and help spread Christmas cheer.
Contact Nick at or (202) 939-2400, ext. 937 if you can pitch in. 

And, of course, your donation to Catholic Charities always helps us to provide basic essentials and services to all those who are most vulnerable in our community.

As you can see from the list, December is a busy month for us here – and we know it’s a busy month for you, too. And while it’s easy to get wrapping-papered up in events and parties, baking and shopping, decorating and caroling, we hope you won’t forget all those people who, like Frank Cross said, need help to make their miracle happen.

Can you be the one to make it happen? 

Thank you, and have a blessed Advent and Christmas!

Read On:

Friday, December 9, 2011

At this graduation, the parents are the ones getting diplomas!

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Nhora presents a certificate to Silvia and little Költen
Guest Post by Nhora Rosero,

Community Outreach Specialist at the Montgomery County Family Center

At the Montgomery County Family Center, we welcome many walk-in clients who have come from all different countries. They arrive in the United States, and oftentimes they do not speak much English. They don’t have a supportive network, and much of their family remains in their home country. They have no idea what resources are available to help them.

Among these walk-in clients, I saw a growing number of people who were expressing concerns and questions about parenting. They were struggling to raise their children in a positive and nurturing way, especially since the cultures that the parents themselves were raised in may have had different methods of childrearing.

Group shot - members of the Parenting Education Program!
To answer this need, I started the Parenting Education Program – basically a parent support group. The goal was to educate parents on topics like nurturing as a lifestyle, rewards and punishment, family rules, and discipline. I developed a curriculum, but I decided to allow the class to steer the direction of our studies based on what they were experiencing at home.

Six months ago, our class gathered for the first time. Initially, the members of the group were strangers to each other. They felt shy at first, but they had one common, powerful goal: to become better mothers and fathers for their children. Now, it is like a different group altogether. It’s a beautiful thing! The members of the group have found a supportive network in each other. They share details of their lives with each other, and comfort each other through difficult moments. They even take their children to the playgrounds together outside of the group! And of course, in fitting with the mission of the program, the group has grown in their knowledge of themselves and in their ability to love and nurture their kids, whether infants, teenagers, or somewhere in-between.

Love the matching argyles on Carlos and his son!
The format of the program is very flexible and allows the group to focus on the issues that matter to them. We meet each Thursday at noon, and at each session, the group chooses a topic to discuss. They all offer their perspectives on the subject based on their own unique upbringings, or on what they have experienced themselves as parents. Then, we relate the issue to broader parenting concepts, whether it’s emotional development, family rules, discipline, etc. Because they contribute the topics we discuss, the members of the group really help develop the curriculum along with me, and the outcome has been simply amazing!

Keysha shows off her certificate to her proud family.
To celebrate the accomplishments of the class, we held a graduation ceremony last week. Each member of the class was recognized for her or his participation and received a certificate of achievement. The ceremony was very touching for me. We did so much with very little resources – just a room to sit in and a snack to share. And the members manage to be here, no matter what the weather is or whatever issues arise in their own lives. At the graduation, I could see in their faces the pride and satisfaction of accomplishment in completing the program. And I think this is the most important part – the program was able to make them feel like they have made a difference in their lives by learning something new and positive.

My personal goal is to continue offering to these parents a place and a space where they can keep growing as human beings and keep asking questions. We need a world with happy children, and in order to do that we must have happy parents. There is also a practical aspect. The members of the group have received a certificate for their participation in the program. This is something parents can mention on their resume if they wish to apply for a job, in addition to the skills they learn and incorporate into their lives.

The group will continue to meet every Thursday. I have asked each current member to invite someone new to join us; this way, we can bring in different perspectives to the program, and the community we are building here will grow. 

The Parenting Education Program will meet two more times before the holiday, then resume in January. Please contact Nhora for more information by phone at (301) 942-1790 or email 

Nhora mentioned that many of the parents must bring their infants and toddlers to class if they do not have a relative or neighbor who can babysit. She is hoping to find a volunteer to play with the children while the program is in session. Also, donations of art supplies for the children - crayons, paper, coloring books, etc. - and snacks for the children and parents would be much appreciated. Please contact Nhora if you are able to help!

Read on! Related posts on family and parenting: 
Rolling out the red carpet for our graduation 
Putting family first for 15 years 

Related posts on working with immigrants and refugees: 
We kick off World Refugee Day in a delicious way 

Monday, November 28, 2011

Kris Kringle

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Guest Post from Father John, President & CEO of Catholic Charities DC

I’d like to share a family tradition with you, if you’ll give me five minutes.

I remember the evening very vividly. Frowning, I trudged slowly down the polished, hardwood stairs, tucking my red and black flannel shirt into my blue jeans.

Like any 10 year-old boy growing up in the 1950s (or today!), I really, really did not like having to do the dishes. It was the one chore I dreaded most.

But when I stepped into the kitchen, there was the whole pile of breakfast plates, juice glasses, spoons, forks, even mom and dad’s coffee cups, all sparkling clean and neatly stacked in the drain beside the sink!

“Yippee!” I shouted right out loud.

“Looks like someone’s Kris Kringle has been at work,” said my mom, smiling from behind her ironing board.

Of all my happy Christmas memories, my family’s Kris Kringle tradition might be my favorite. The little game my parents devised was simple, but the lesson we learned from it was quite profound.

Here’s how it worked: My 12 brothers and sisters and I would each draw the name of a family member from a hat. Then, we would look for opportunities to do something special for that person throughout the month of December, without the person knowing who was doing it. We were that person’s “Kris Kringle.”

And each time we did something good for someone, we got to put a piece of hay in the little manger of the crèche we kept on our mantelpiece. There was no competition – no big material reward for the child who put in the most pieces of hay. But the excitement of the game, and the warm feeling we got from making the Baby Jesus’s bed a little softer, gave our family holidays a deep and abiding happiness that made Christmas simply unforgettable.

What strikes me this year, my first as the head of Catholic Charities, is how many families, and especially children, will face hardship and heartache this Christmas. While other children are dreaming of special toys and flashy video games, fully one third of the youngsters in our area will be grateful just to have a decent meal and a safe place to sleep.

I’m told the Monday after Thanksgiving has come to be known as “Cyber Monday,” because so many people are checking names off of their Christmas lists by jumping on the online bargains of the day. Of course, I am hardly technically savvy enough to write this blog, let alone shop online. And, while I’m a little more old school in my holiday shopping traditions, I can appreciate a good thing. So, if you’re doing some shopping today, would you mind stopping by and giving one of your Christmas gifts early to our 2011 Christmas Fund Drive?

We’re trying to help an awful lot of people this year and we can only do that thanks to the generosity of many people like you. Merry Christmas to you and yours!

Support our 2011 Christmas Fund Drive today!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Best Wishes for a Blessed Thanksgiving from Msgr. John Enzler

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As many of you know, the Christmas season has always been a time of Thanksgiving for me.

And this Thanksgiving and Advent season will be particularly special to me in my first year at Catholic Charities, as it is a true blessing to be able to put into action the words of Mother Teresa: “Give them through our hands this day their daily bread.” So I send this Thanksgiving greeting to all of you who are so special to me, in celebration of this marvelous gift.

My prayers are with you throughout the season, and I will remember you and your loved ones in my Masses on Christmas Day.

Thank you for allowing me to serve as your hands in helping each stranger who comes to my door.

There is no greater gift.

Fr. John Enzler
President & CEO of Catholic Charities

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Monday, November 21, 2011

At SHARE, it's not about the food - it's about the people.

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Kate, a volunteer at SHARE, helped count out frozen goods.
At this point of the week, you’re probably thinking about one thing: turkey. But let’s be honest. Sure, great food is essential at a Thanksgiving dinner – but more important than that are the people with whom you’re sharing the big meal. 

The same holds true at our SHARE Food Network. The massive quantity of food they distributed last weekend is certainly impressive – some 11,000 turkeys to over 600 host sites in DC, Maryland and Virginia. But what’s driving these massive distributions is not those turkeys: it’s the thousands of volunteers who care enough to get involved.

Dorothy is an active volunteer with SHARE!
I got a glimpse of this amazing community in action last Friday, the first day of SHARE’s massive Thanksgiving distribution. It was hard not to ogle at the food, boxes of which seemed to form an edible mountain range along the walls of SHARE’s enormous warehouse. Volunteers then transferred the food from these bulk bins to a long countertop, where they could distribute the items – whether fresh sweet potatoes or frozen sausages – to the steady crowd of people who arrived to pick up food packages.

SHARE is not a food bank. It's a social enterprise program, meaning it looks to sustain itself while doing good. It has, you know, a business model. 

Each month, the program distributes more than 10,000 food packages filled with fresh, high-quality foods. These packages are valued at $45, but by ordering in bulk from the same suppliers to supermarkets, SHARE is able to charge only $20, plus two hours of volunteer service. Much of the work in moving and packaging the food is done by volunteers.  

 Anyone looking for an affordable food option is welcome at SHARE. Unfortunately, the present economic climate has prevented many families from being able to afford even $20 for the food packages. “It’s been a challenge this year,” said Chris Byrd, Grants and Partnerships Coordinator of SHARE. SHARE gets a lot of help from grants and partnerships, but Chris stressed the importance of good old neighborly generosity: “We need the people who can afford the food packages to help support the people who can’t.” (Sounds a lot like Luke 12:48 – “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded.”)
The SHARE warehouse is located in Hyattsville, MD.

It’s this type of generosity that brought a group out from Grace Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland. They were picking up SHARE packages for 40 families at their parish – all of them paid for through donations from parishioners. “We’re glad to help look out for those who are less fortunate,” they said while waiting to receive their flock of frozen turkeys.

Wanda, another volunteer, had arrived on a similar mission from Edgewood Community Services to pick up 16 SHARE packages. While she allocated onions and carrots into each bag, she explained that many residents at Edgewood would be alone for the holidays. “Giving them the food package is a way of showing them that someone is looking out for them,” she said, adding that several single-unit apartments will share some of the SHARE packages, and others will be used for Edgewood’s Thanksgiving community dinner.
Wanda has been coming to SHARE since the 80s!

Lynn worked double-duty this month, volunteering at the SHARE warehouse itself in addition to serving as host site coordinator at Allen Chapel AME in Silver Spring. “I knew there was a need, so I came to help,” she said simply.  

Watching all the host site coordinators wait for SHARE volunteers to deposit turkeys into their carts, it struck me that though November and December bring the largest numbers of people to SHARE, the need for affordable food still exists long after the wishbone has been split.

“Our program is here year-round,” Chris said. “The need never goes away.”  SHARE needs a community of support to stay up and running, and there's plenty you can do to help! Chris said what they need most at SHARE are:

1. Participants! As Chris put it, “It’s open to everyone. Even Bill Clinton. Even Bill Gates." 
2. Volunteers! Help pack and distribute the food at the warehouse - it's all about building community.
3. Ambassadors! Tell others about SHARE and encourage them to get involved. You might even coordinate a host site.
4. Donors! Help your neighbors - sponsor a SHARE package for a family in need. It's simple stewardship, yet it serves as a powerful reminder to people who are struggling that someone is there to help and that they are not alone, whether it's for Thanksgiving Day or any given Thursday.

Read on!
Can you get by on $4 for food per day?
Field trip to the grocery store
A seat at the dinner table

Friday, November 18, 2011

Life at the New York Avenue Men's Emergency Shelter: Tough Love

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 The hardest part about visiting an emergency shelter for the first time is coming to grips with the truth: the shelter is not a home. And it’s not supposed to be. In fact, it can’t be.

An emergency shelter is a safe haven from the weather and the streets, open to anyone without question with nowhere else to turn.

Last week, I visited our New York Avenue Emergency Men's Shelter to check out a distribution of warm clothing items to the men staying in the shelter. Augustine Frazier, the shelter's senior program manager, tries to organize these distributions a few times a year to provide his residents with new gloves, hats, hygiene products, thermal undergarments and underwear.

Of course, I was roped into helping. Soon I was handing out 3-packs of new underwear to 360 men of all ages, races and – most relevantly – sizes. Some of the men had been surviving on the streets for years. Others had been working an office job earlier that day.
Residents received socks, thermal underwear,
tooth brushes and more.

Last year, more than 12,000 people in the Washington-metropolitan region experienced homelessness for at least one night. The New York Avenue Men’s Shelter has the capacity to provide a bed, a hot meal, showers and case management to 360 men over the age of 18 each night. During hypothermia season, when the temperature can drop below freezing, as many as 380 men might be in the shelter at night.

Augustine and his 33 staff members walk a fine line between serving their clients and making sure they do not become overly reliant on the system.
Augustine (center) and his staff celebrate when the
successful finish of the clothing drive. 

Managing the peace and meeting as many needs as possible requires a system built on a softened sense of military order. Everything starts with standing in line – for check-in, for food, for sheets. There are rules that must be followed to ensure so many can live and function within one building. The shelter must not be a place that fosters complacency in any of its residents.

Yet, as staff look each person in the eye, they see someone in the middle of a very hard time in his life. And they want to do everything they can to help.

As the men filed through and collected new clothes, the residential counselors joked with them by name, checked in on them, and addressed specific needs or complaints. Residential counselors, RC’s for short, are peacekeepers, case managers, advocates and housekeepers all in one. They are the lifeblood of any shelter.

And while a shelter isn’t supposed to be home, the staff still tries to foster a sense of family. Certainly, some of the men present incredibly challenging needs – years of substance abuse and/or mental illness has left some with severely underdeveloped social, personal and workplace skills.

But the staff emphasized to me just how critical outside support from community groups, volunteers and the business community is to giving each man a sense of self-worth.

Just this week, Benjamin Moore (the paint company) and the US Conference of Mayors teamed up to provide a fresh coat of paint to shelters across the United States, including the New York Avenue Shelter.

The surprise of the residents was visible as they walked into what seemed like brand new dorm rooms. Hopefully, like it was for all of us at Catholic Charities, the professional paint job (for free!!!) was a reminder to each man that the community surrounding them wants to see these guys get back on their feet.

No one should ever end up in a shelter. But to have that safety net in place is absolutely vital. As unemployment remains high and decent housing often out of reach, please keep the residents and staff of New York Avenue in your prayers.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Do-Gooder's Guide to Thanksgiving at Catholic Charities

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Volunteers pitch in at our Southern Maryland Food Bank.

If you’ve ever had to prepare (or help prepare) Thanksgiving for a crowd, you know that planning is essential. There’s travel to arrange, green bean casserole to make, tablecloths to iron, and a giant turkey that has decided to occupy your freezer. 

Our SHARE program needs plenty of volunteers for holiday
Of course, at the root of all this preparation is the holiday itself: Thanksgiving, “thanks” + “giving.” We know a lot of people want to show “thanks” for their blessings by “giving” back to the community, and we also know that sometimes it’s hard to budget time for charity in the midst of holiday commotion. So this year, we encourage you to plan early! Take a look at a few of our programs with holiday needs below, and keep them in mind as you coordinate your grocery shopping, errands, and events. It’s as simple as picking up some extra canned goods while you’re at the grocery store, or helping out at a food bank for a few hours one afternoon. Yet simple acts can be powerful gestures, as they help provide food, comfort, community and hope to some of our neighbors who are most in need. 

How can you help? Read on – and please spread the word!

      Our Montgomery County Family Center will host its annual Holiday Giving Project, and they need plenty of help and donations. Tiffany Tan, Program Manager, said that hundreds of families will be counting on the food packages they receive from the Family Center for their Thanksgiving celebrations.
      Volunteer: Help create and distribute food packages at the Family Center. Dates are November 21-23.
      Food Donations: In order to fill these holiday packages, the Family Center is requesting both perishable and non-perishable food donations. You can organize a drive with a church, business or group – just let them know ahead of time so they can anticipate the food! You can also donate food yourself. Perishable food is needed by November 21, and non-perishable food must be dropped off between 8-10 a.m. on November 21.
      Clothing: The season of giving is also the season of colder temperatures. The Family Center is seeking new or gently used winter weather clothing and accessories of all sizes to distribute to families in need.
To help out, contact Tiffany at 301-942-1790, ext. 131 or email

Brenda DiCarlo of our Southern Maryland Food Bank said that the Food Bank staff work all year to supply food (over 600,000 pounds of it!) to people who are hungry, but “the holidays give us more concern to add a little extra to the bag.” We all know the warm memories associated with special holiday dishes, from the big Thanksgiving turkey to the gooey apple pie. Help cultivate those memories for a family by donating to the Food Bank this holiday season. They’re asking for both perishable and non-perishable items—though anything perishable (like a turkey) should be frozen. You can contact Brenda at 301-274-0695 or email

Our SHARE Food Network offers special holiday food packages each year with all the fixings for a family feast: a 12-14 pound turkey, stuffing mix, and pumpkin pie—the works!  “It’s a huge time for us,” said SHARE’S Grants and Partnerships Coordinator, Chris Byrd (you may remember him from the Food Stamp Challenge). They are in particular need of volunteers the first three Saturdays in November (the 5th, 12th and 19th), and they’ll also need help with bagging November 14, 15 and 16. Times are listed on their monthly calendar. To register or to get additional information, contact Ms. Twitty as 301-864-3115, ext. 011 or email

Are you good at cooking for a crowd? The employment programs at our Kennedy Institute could use your help this November. Chandra Connolly said that traditionally the staff holds a Thanksgiving dinner for the 40 to 50 people with developmental disabilities in their employment programs. Unfortunately, due to budget cutbacks, they’re not sure if they can manage a big dinner this year. They’ve asked each staff member to contribute an item, but they need your help, too. You can either donate a prepared dish or simply buy a few items at a supermarket to drop off at Kennedy. “Since many of the individuals in the program live in shelters, residential facilities or homes, they may not be able to afford or will not be able to celebrate the Thanksgiving holidays,” Chandra said.  If you can pitch in, please contact Chandra at 202-281-2703 or email

No matter what your plans this Thanksgiving, we hope it’s a blessed one – and we hope that you share a part of it with our Catholic Charities family.