Wednesday, July 31, 2013

English Lessons at 7-11

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A committed student, Zinsou practiced
his English with customers at the 7-11.
Zinsou has lived in the DC area for nearly five years, but when he says “home,” he still means Togo, West Africa – the place he was born, and the place his wife and two small children wait to join him in the US.

“It is painful to be separated from them,” he said. “Everything I do is to support them in Togo and build a new home for us here.”

Zinsou left Togo, a country rattled with political and economic instability, to improve his job and his wages. But the process was slow, especially since he spoke very little English. He found work at 7-11, barely enough to cover his rent and support his family in Togo. The job was hard as he struggled to understand his customers. When a friend told him about Catholic Charities’ English as a Second Language program, Zinsou decided to sign up.

“I wanted to go to school here and have a better job. But I could not do this without English,” he said.

Zinsou began his studies in January 2011, steadily advancing through intermediate, advanced, conversational and workplace English courses.  He would study in the downtime at his job and at night after a long workday.
Father John congratulates Zinsou as he receives his
ESOL diploma. 

“Pronunciation was very difficult for me. I would talk to myself in my apartment at first to practice. Then I started practicing with customers at my job. It helped me to hear the customers talking. I learned new words and could think about the way words sounded,” he said.

As he began to master the language, Zinsou took additional courses through the ESOL program in workplace English and career development. “The instructors were so helpful. We learned what to do to improve ourselves at work. We learned what words to use to express ourselves on the job.”

Kathy Diaz, coordinator of the ESOL program, said this aspect of the ESOL course is one of the most critical to students finding success after their graduation. “Most of our students are learning English with a definite purpose in mind. They want to get their GED, go to college, and find a better job. We want to make sure they have the skills to fulfill their goals.”

The positive effects were immediate. Zinsou was promoted to store manager, meaning he is more in control of his schedule and earning better wages for his family. He sends money to them two to three times each month and has already applied for their visas so they can join him. Finally, the United States will be home for them all.

“Their application is on review,” he said. “I am hopeful.”

Though the faces of his family were missing from the crowd gathered to celebrate the ESOL Class of 2013 earlier this month, Zinsou said it was a proud moment for him, and marked a happy beginning to his education and advancement.

“I want to go to school now. With a degree there will be many more job opportunities for me.”

Congratulations to all graduates in the ESOL Class of 2013!
Photos by Elizabeth Demaree Photography
You can learn more about our ESOL and Career Development program here. New session will be starting soon! Email for more information.

Monday, July 22, 2013

This is What Two Years of "Yes" Look Like

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We call it the "Enzler Effect" - the feeling of enthusiasm, faith and love that Father John has a special way of instilling in everyone he meets. If you've experienced it, you know what we mean. 

This month we're celebrating Father John's second anniversary as President and CEO of Catholic Charities. The seeds sown by his influence have taken root throughout our Archdiocese of Washington - it's a very exciting time. 

We managed to pin Father John down for a brief "state of the union" on our challenges, our successes, our goals, and how we keep saying "Yes!" to those in need.

High fives during a Help the Homeless event at
Blessed Sacrament
Q: One year ago, we celebrated your first anniversary at Catholic Charities. In our interview then, you said that Catholic Charities has to, “be in the business of saying ‘Yes!’ to everyone who needs us.” Do you think the organization has made strides toward that goal since then?

A: I think we have done an incredible job in the last year of broadening our work. We started several initiatives – a massive region-wide coat drive, breakfasts for men and women who reside in our shelters, a big youth service day, for example – that touch thousands of clients and volunteers. Besides making someone warmer or giving them a meal, we’re introducing people to Catholic Charities. We’re bringing people together the same way Christ taught us.

Overall, we have 64 programs in this community and they all change people’s lives. I’m talking about giving shelter to the homeless and food to the hungry. But that’s just the beginning. Our work is designed to raise people permanently out of poverty. That means job training, financial literacy classes…almost anything you can think of that teaches and encourages people to live productively and independently.

Joseph's Closet coat drive was a new initiative brought
to us by Father John this year.
Q: The needs in our community are so great – in the region, 12,000 people are homeless each year. Nearly a third of the children here live in poverty. And throughout the region, the working poor struggle just to feed their families. There's so much that needs to be done... Does it ever feel overwhelming? How do you keep from getting discouraged?

A: Yes, the challenges here are formidable. But it’s the people around me who keep me energized. Our staff members work incredibly hard. Nobody is here just to earn a paycheck and go home. They truly give their hearts to this mission.

And it’s also the people we help. Seeing their lives improve is a daily reminder of why God put us here. When you see a single mother move her kids from a shelter into her own apartment. Or a dad come out of one our job training programs and build a better life for himself and his children. Or the smile on the face of a little boy or girl who feels safe and secure, maybe for the first time in their lives, believe me, it really makes you want to come to work in the morning.

And then there are our donors – the generous men and women who make our work possible. When someone shares his or her own personal resources to support us, everyone here takes notice. We know how deeply they care about helping their neighbors, and I hope all our donors, large and small, recognize that everything we do happens because they care enough to help.

Q: How has the arrival of Pope Francis affected the day-to-day work at Catholic Charities?

A: He’s been a huge inspiration to the whole Catholic Community. You know, I’ve always been amazed at the dedication and commitment of the staff and volunteers here. But our new Holy Father has really gotten all Catholics to refocus on the importance of living the Gospel through service to others. I see it everywhere I turn.

Father John meets with clients
at our family housing program.
Pope Francis has said his role is to protect all humanity, “especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important, those whom Matthew lists in the final judgment on love: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and those in prison.” Who can hear words like that and not be moved to action?

Q: So what does the next year hold for Catholic Charities?

A: This is a critical moment in our community – the economy is slowly recovering, but we’re also seeing more families facing homelessness. Demand remains high at food pantries. And many seniors are struggling to make ends meet as they face the physical and emotional challenges of aging.

Catholic Charities, thanks to our generous supporters who have stood with us through it all, is very well positioned to help people overcome poverty and make our region stronger. In the next year, our Parish Service Centers program is going to be crucial as we create more ways for people to get help in their own communities. Already we have seen a dental ministry, new food pantries, a program for people with special needs, and more… all started by parishioners with our help.

Catholic Charities helps thousands overcome poverty each year. When whole families are living on the streets, or women are fleeing from domestic violence, or people need new financial and job skills to regain their independence…or when they just fall through the cracks in the system and have no place to turn, Catholic Charities will help them get back on their feet. That will be our mission for next year, and for as long as people need us.

Celebrate Fr. John's 2nd Anniversary with a gift to support your vulnerable neighbors through Catholic Charities. Donate online here. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Our New Volunteer Portal is LIVE!

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Volunteer serve a cookout lunch at our homeless shelter.
It’s been several months in the making, but we’re proud to unveil a brand-new Volunteer Portal on our Catholic Charities website!

Kids love helping kids! This do-gooder softball team
purchased Christmas presents for low-income families. 
Everywhere you see the work of Catholic Charities, you see the work of a volunteer serving as Christ’s hands to those in need. “With over 5,000 volunteers committing their time to us last year, we needed to upgrade to a more sophisticated system, ensuring our programs get the help they need and our volunteers get positions they love,” said Hilary Bragg, program assistant for Catholic Charities Outreach Department.

Here’s some highlights of the new Volunteer Portal, unveiled yesterday on our website:

Easy sign up. We streamlined the sign up process, to place volunteers in our programs as efficiently as possible. Our new system allows you sign up online, browse positions that match your interests, even register volunteer groups from your office or school! To quote our Volunteer Manager, Mayra Griffiths: "It's quick, it's simple, it's user friendly!" 

New Feature! One Time Opportunities. Many people approach us who want to volunteer, but their work schedules make it hard to plan for a long-term commitment. So we created a section for one-time opportunities, where you sign up to help at Catholic Charities whenever you have a few hours to spare – serve dinner after work one night, or distribute grocery packages on a Saturday morning.

Online Volunteer Community. Our programs serve our most vulnerable neighbors, so as a safety measure some of our volunteer opportunities require specific screenings or trainings. For ongoing volunteers, the Volunteer Community helps our Volunteer Team keep track of each volunteer’s clearances, forms, and other information.

Above all, these improvements create more opportunities for volunteers to help us serve everyone who comes our way. Volunteering with Catholic Charities can turn someone’s hour of greatest need into a moment of relief, hope, and joy. You could be the dentist who fills a child's painful cavity, a volunteer tutor practicing conversational English with a refugee, or the volunteer who frees up time for a case manager to meet one-on-one with clients by handling administrative tasks.

"Our goal is to fill up open slots with energetic volunteers," Mayra said. "If you're a newbie volunteer, try a one-time opportunity to get your feet wet - we're sure you'll be back!"

Ready to volunteer with us? Enter the Volunteer Portal here and check out all we have to offer. We’d also love to hear any suggestions you have to make the site even better. Contact us at

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Happy Birthday, Land I Love!

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Old Glory at Reagan National
Guest Post by Msgr. John Enzler
President and CEO, Catholic Charities

I’ve been blessed to travel out of our country on numerous occasions, mostly through group tours I’ve led for various parishes. I’ve visited Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Germany, Italy, Ireland, England, Canada, Austria, Switzerland, Mexico, Yugoslavia, and India – yet there is no country like ours, and there is no city I love more than Washington, DC. I always return home from my travels freshly conscious of the freedoms we as Americans enjoy thanks to our Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and the democracy these documents represent.

I’m not always in agreement with some of the issues our government supports, and I worry about our country’s protection of life, our commitment to the poor, and our welcome of immigrants. Yet no other country in the world has so much potential for open dialogue and change. The Fourth of July reminds me that while I might not agree with others on certain issues, I live in a land where I have the freedom of press, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. These freedoms allow me to discuss, challenge and even speak out on issues and causes that matter to me. It’s truly a blessing just to be born in the United States.

All that we try to accomplish at Catholic Charities has such potential for success because of where we live, who we are, and the opportunity we have to encourage our leaders to bring about even more service and support to those who need it most. Please say a prayer today for those we serve, who struggle in this great country of ours. Let’s continue to use our freedoms to find ways to help them – this is a responsibility that comes with the many blessings we have as Americans.