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

Read On!

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.