Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Advent Advocacy Call

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Prepare the Way of the Lord:  Advent Advocacy Call
A day before Thanksgiving, I  joined Fr. Michael, a Catholic pastor in Southern Maryland to help deliver food to members of the community in need.  When I arrived, Fr. Michael already had his car full of turkeys, pasta, and other food items.  One of our stops led us down a long dirt road in a wooded  area, after a quarter of mile on this dirt road that was full of potholes we finally reached a clearing in the woods that had two small trailer cabins where a family loved with their children.
Just a few miles from this family’s home, we had seen a number of mansions. The sharp contrast between the two bewildered me. Fr. Michael turned to me and said: “Our county is one of the wealthiest in the United States and yet, we have people here living in horrible housing.  Often, they are pushed aside, blamed for their misfortunes and hidden from our views.  They need our help: a decent roof over their heads, supportive social service programs, and jobs.” 
I nodded in agreement.  I have seen so many working families in Washington D.C. and Maryland struggling to find an adequate housing or paying a disproportionate part of their income for rental apartments in bad conditions. More and more, people with disabilities and retirees who have lived and worked in their neighborhoods all their lives are no longer able to afford their rent.   Costs have grown disproportionally to their income. Too many parents have to work two or even three jobs to be able pay the rent and utilities on top of other financial obligations. As a result, they have less time to spend with their children and to be involved in their communities. Those communities, then, become less resilient; their children more prone to suffer negative consequences ranging from poor academic achievement to gang involvement. 
In the coming weeks, we will be celebrating the story of a poor family that 2,000 years ago struggled desperately to find a safe home in Bethlehem.  That fits into even a larger story about God coming to us in Jesus Christ and making his home among the poor, at the margins of the structures of power. Those of us who are tired and disenchanted by secular hyper-consumerism iteration of Christmas, may want to reflect on its core spiritual message.  Beyond its highly sentimentalized veneer, Christmas is a story about the Spirit of the Lord bringing glad tidings to the poor, healing the brokenhearted and proclaiming liberty to captives.  As such, Advent, as a preparation is an invitation for us to pay attention to the poor around us to the transforming presence of the Spirit of God in midst of our broken and yet still beautiful world.  
In his encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, Pope Francis points out that lack of housing, both in rural areas and in large cities, is a major issue for human ecology.  “Having a home,’ he writes, ‘has much to do with a sense of personal dignity and the growth of families.”  He then insists that, “creativity should be shown in integrating rundown neighborhoods into a welcoming city: How beautiful those cities which overcome paralyzing mistrust, integrate those who are different and make this very integration a new factor of development!”
But how do we prepare the way of the Lord and translate these words into action?  Allow me to offer two suggestions.  First, let’s be clear: safe, decent housing that the working poor can afford is an important moral, justice, and a life issue.  It is about investing in strong, resilient families and healthy children that can then be empowered to love, serve others, and glorify God.  As faith communities, it is incumbent upon us to bring the Gospel values to shed light on the growing gentrification of many of our neighborhoods, local zoning law ordinances, proposed models of urban development, tenants rights, etc.
Second, to make tangible progress in improving housing and strengthening resiliency of our local communities, we need to come work together to make it happen. The archdiocesan Justice and Advocacy (J&A) Councils are wonderful example of that. Montgomery, Charles and Prince George’s counties each have their own J&A Councils.  They meet with County Council Members to remind them of Catholic Social Teachings priorities and to support legislation that protects and empowers the most vulnerable, and promote the common good.  They testify at budget hearings, ask critical questions, bring Gospel values and perspectives, they host community forums, organize local parish campaigns – they are the contemporary presence of Jesus in the public square.   J&A Councils serve as a vital bridge between their respective local parishes and the larger Catholic community organizing efforts. 

The have done so much to advance the common good, helping to secure funding for affordable housing and for programs for homeless and disabled.  But there is a need for more people – especially young adults - to join the local J & A Councils.   I hope and pray that during this Advent, anyone reading this  may express interest in joining their ranks.  What a powerful way would that be to help prepare the way of the Lord!  For more information, please contact Fr. Jacek Orzechowski at Jacek.Orzechowski@CC-DC.org         

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Advocacy in the Church

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A guest blog from Fr. Jacek Orzechowski, OFM. Fr. Jacek is a Franciscan friar. Since August 2017 he has been leading our work in Parish Community Organizing and Advocacy.  

Ramon woke up in the middle of the night in a grip of anxiety, 16 years have passed, but he still hears an echo of the deadly gunshots fired at his older brother by a criminal gang near their family home in El Salvador.   Ramon was told that he would be next.   Not wanting his wife to become a widow and his children orphans, he fled to the United States, settling in the metropolitan Washington D.C. area.  Eventually, this young husband and father received Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which allowed him to work legally in the U.S. and shielded him from deportation.   A few years later, Ramon’s wife and one of his children made the perilous journey from their native El Salvador. They, too, were fleeing violence and wanted to be reunited with their husband and father.  Since coming to the United States, Ramon and his family have become very active members of one of the local parishes where they have volunteered countless hours serving others and contributing to the common good. 

These days, however, Ramon, his wife, and children once again feel on edge.  The current administration has indicated that it may terminate TPS for all 320,000 recipients.  These individuals would lose their jobs, and potentially their families, as they would face deportation and the prospect of returning to their very troubled countries.  Like Ramon, more than 70 percent of TPS holders have a child, spouse, or sibling who is a U.S. citizen.  Tearing apart families or putting vulnerable people, especially children, in harm’s way is wrong.  It goes against the core Gospel values.  It also violates the respect for life that the Catholic Church upholds. 

This past Sunday, we heard from the Book of Exodus: “Thus says the LORD:
‘You shall not molest or oppress an alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.  You shall not wrong any widow or orphan.  If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry.” 

The Church pays attention to the cry of the vulnerable and marginalized.  Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington has been equipping a number of local parishes with tools to help carry out an advocacy campaign in support TPS recipients such as Ramon.   

Thousands of Catholics have signed the letter to President Trump and Department of Homeland Security.  They urge them to renew TPS designation for the countries of El Salvador, Honduras, Haiti, and Nicaragua.  In a similar
vein, they encourage Senators in Maryland and Virginia to sponsor legislation that would preserve the ability of TPS holders to live and work legally in the U.S., if they have lived here lawfully for many years and face extreme hardship or be in danger of losing their lives if deported. 

Among parishes that have collaborated with Catholic Charities in our advocacy efforts are:  St. Camillus Church in Silver Spring, St. Mary’s Church in Landover Hills in Maryland, as well as the  Shrine of the Sacred Heart and Cathedral of Saint Matthews the Apostle in Washington D.C.

When fellow Catholics act in solidarity with our brothers and sisters holding TPS, I am filled with hope.  It is inspiring to see others responding to Pope Francis’ call and building a culture of encounter.  Together, we follow Jesus with two feet: charity and justice.  The narratives of fear, callousness, and hatred try to dissuade us from the Christian path.  Yes, we refuse to give in to cynicism and despair.  We are the people of hope and Alleluia is our song.     

Please consider taking a minute to advocate in support of TPS at http://bit.ly/2lrO91D

Monday, October 23, 2017

Chasing Her American Dream, One Patient at a Time

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When someone comes to our McCarrick Family Center, the first person they often meet is 19-year old Marlene. Smiling and bubbly, she makes families feel at ease and welcomed. She knows what’s it’s like to be in their shoes – just a few months earlier, she was the one walking through the door. 

When Marlene was 17, she and younger sister fled gang violence in El Salvador that threatened their lives. Their mother had been living in the United States for nearly a decade and it was finally time for them to be reunited in a safer place. With no other options, Marlene and her 8-year old sister waded through rivers, walked through deserts, and crammed onto cattle cars to reunite with their mother in Maryland. 

Marlene faced many challenges as an undocumented juvenile in her new home. When her undocumented status restricted her from applying for loans to go to college, Marlene sought the help of our McCarrick Family Center. With the help of our immigration legal services and a team of pro bono lawyers, Marlene was granted Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) status which will allow Marlene to apply for permanent residency in the United States. Deacon Jim Shanahan was one of those pro bono attorneys working on her case. “A story like Marlene’s is exactly why SIJ status exists and is so important. We have kids fleeing on foot to escape death and this is the way to help them.” 

When Marlene heard the judge’s ruling, she started to cry. She knew then her American dream to become a doctor could happen. 

To prepare her future career in medicine, Marlene volunteers at the medical clinic and dental clinic in the McCarrick Family Center.  “We are like a family here, we all help each other. Catholic Charities has opened so many doors for me and I can’t see my life without them.”

To help others like Marlene, donate to our Immigration Legal Services team. 

Friday, September 1, 2017

The Gift of Labor

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This is the weekend to celebrate the gift of Labor and all those who have been supported by the labor unions and their initiatives for so many years. As you may know, in 1891, Pope Leo XIII wrote an encyclical on the value and importance of labor. He was particularly concerned with the inequities faced by those working in new found factories, particularly women and children. This encyclical, commonly thought to be the Magna Carta of Human Social Order, is the prototype of Catholic Social Teaching for the last 130 years. The encyclical beautifully proclaimed that people have the right to productive work, decent and fair wages, safe working conditions, to organize, to private property, to economic initiative. 

As one of the principals of Catholic Social Teaching, the Dignity of Work and Rights of Workers, is a very important aspect of our Catholic social tradition. So on this Labor Day weekend, we are cognizant of those who support and raise up the importance of these principals for all people in our country.

At Catholic Charities we are blessed because we see our work as also as our ministry. We take great pride in doing what we do as a way of serving others and yet the work aspect allows us to pay the bills, put food on the table and provide homes for ourselves and our families. I truly believe we are blessed to have jobs that are our ministry and a ministry that is our job. For me it’s never a job – it is a chance to serve and help those who are most in need. That is why I love this “job” so much!

Enjoy your weekend. Thank you for the “Labor of Love” that you provide every day.  May your ministry be blessed as we begin a brand new school year and may those you serve be blessed by the quality of your ministry each and every day.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Looking Forward to Fall

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This past Tuesday, I celebrated mass for the Feast of the Assumption which is one of the holy days of the Catholic Church. We had a nice group at the Hickey Center join us and I was so pleased to see how many people came at the last minute with very short notice. I did mention in my homily that the Feast of the Assumption was not my favorite because, ever since I was a little boy, it reminded me that summer was almost over and that I’d soon be going back to school.

This year I’m looking forward to the fall season for four reasons. In early September, right after Labor Day, I’ve got a trip planned with some very good friends on a cruise which will go from Budapest to Prague on the Danube River. I’m sure it will be great fun. Secondly, we are opening up the Susan Denison Mona Center in Prince George’s
Susan Denison Mona Center set to open this fall
County in late September and after a very long wait, our dental clinic and immigration and pro-bono legal efforts will begin in Temple Hills, MD. It will also house a medical clinic under the leadership of Doctor’s Community Hospital and are we are also looking forward to the Health Equity Center on the second floor which will be managed by the University of Maryland School of Public Health. We are really excited about expanding our reach in Prince George's County. Number three: in partnership with the Catholic University of America we have 10 students beginning their studies towards a Masters in Social Work at Catholic University on August 28th. Each student is receiving a full-scholarship and upon completion of graduation they will dedicate three years to working with Catholic Charities. Their on the ground work in the most impoverished areas in our city will make a lasting impact. Finally, we will be breaking ground very soon for our new Angels Watch shelter for women suffering from domestic abuse. I was thrilled to sign the final construction contracts earlier this week - especially knowing thanks to generous supporters, partners, and government investment we are able to open the building debt-free. Kudos to everyone who has been involved in all of these projects. The Executive Team and the Leadership Team have guided the process from start to finish. Well done! 

So, for the first time in a long time, I’m looking forward to the new school year and I’m excited about all we are doing together for the poor.

Enjoy your weekend.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Shamie's Story of Service

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This summer, we launched our Summer of Service - an initiative to increase volunteerism with 70 unique volunteer opportunities. Throughout the Summer of Service, we're getting to know the 7,400 volunteers who share their time and talent with us each year through Stories of Service. Our first story comes from Shamie, a first time volunteer with Catholic Charities. She'll be volunteering with our St. Jude's Project which connects those with Huntington's Disease to social workers and a network of care. We sat down with Shamie during her volunteer orientation: 

Where are you from?

Annapolis, MD

What do you do?

I’m currently a proposal writer, but will be returning to graduate school this fall to study social work.

What interested you in volunteering with Catholic Charities?

I will be attending the University of Maryland to obtain a Masters in Social Work and wanted to get some clinical experience to support my academic training. A friend of mine told me about the wonderful work Catholic Charities does in the community and the broad range of services they offer - from health care programs to immigrant and refugee services - so it was a natural fit for me as I explore different fields within the profession.

What do you hope to gain from volunteering with Catholic Charities?

I’m looking forward to gaining real world experience working directly with clients. I want to become a social worker to help underservied communities, and this is a great opportunity to build my skills and to learn about the types of challenges these communities are facing.

Tell me a fun fact about yourself?

I speak three languages!

We're always looking for new volunteers like Shamie - find a volunteer opportunity near you

Friday, July 7, 2017

DC Department of Human Services Guest Blog

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Amanda Chesney is Catholic Charities Executive Director of Homeless and Housing Services. She oversees 26 programs in the District of Columbia, Montgomery County, Prince George’s County and Southern Maryland Tri-County Continuum of Care. Amanda's expertise in non-profit management and her experience as a licensed clinical social worker affords her a unique perspective on the challenges our region faces in homelessness and housing. She was asked by DC Department of Human Services to provide her thoughts and expertise about modernizing the Homeless Services Reform Act to improve the city's approach to helping serve those without a home.  This post originally appeared on DC Department of Human Services's blog

Right Size at the Right Time 

HSRA updates will increase system efficiency and help individuals and families move through crises and on from DC’s homeless emergency system, and as Executive Director of Homeless and Housing Services at Catholic Charities DC, I support these changes.

Father John meets with a man staying at
Adam's Place low-barrier shelter. 
If we want to end homelessness in the District for the 7,473 persons in this crisis, we must make the most of our limited resources; that requires very difficult choices. Often when a client has exceeded the capacity of a certain program to meet their need, or has shown great progress toward self-sufficiency, it means it’s time to reallocate their slot to the next person in crisis. However, under our current version of the HSRA, the decision to end or continue a person or family’s stay in a housing program is not determined by experts in the housing and homeless services field, nor is it determined by our DHS program and provider monitors. These decisions are currently handled by judges armed with only the outdated 2005 HSRA and a very limited client and system perspective; this needs to change. READ MORE...

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Overcoming the Odds - A Graduation to Remember

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By: Paris Adon, Principal of the Kennedy School

It’s been two weeks since the last day of school in Washington, DC!  All around our area, the school year is winding down and summer break has begun.  Volunteers recently came to do some sprucing up in our hallways as part of the CCDC Summer of Service.  But me?  I’m still thinking about our recent graduation.

At Catholic Charities, we were so proud to be celebrating 3 Kennedy School graduates: DeAndra Brown, Imani King and Christena Juhans.  For each of these students, the path to reach this remarkable milestone was at times a steep, uphill climb.  At some point in their lives, these students were told that they would never graduate from anywhere or anything.  I couldn’t be more proud of their accomplishments and excited for these students and the futures that await them.  All of them will be attending adult education programs following graduation.

Some people say that the Kennedy School is a unique place.  Our student body is comprised of 31 students between the ages of 6-22 years old.  We specialize in serving students with a variety of disabilities. But at our core, we are like any other school.  We are working to prepare our students for independence and life beyond graduation.  Our primary goal at the Kennedy School is that every student will graduate with either a job or a post-secondary educational opportunity. 

The scene at graduation was as you’d expect—high excitement!  Friends and family everywhere!  Caps, gowns, photos!  We’d rehearsed the day before to be sure we were ready.  The entire student body, some alumni, our staff and a large collection of family and friends turned out at the Archdiocese of Washington’s Pastoral Center for the ceremony. Catholic Charities’ CEO Father John Enzler spoke and congratulated our students. 

I was particularly touched when DeAndra’s mom came to hug me and burst into tears on my shoulder.  “Without this school, I don’t know where DeAndra would be.”  Our relationship with DeAndra and his family is long and meaningful.  He’s been a student at Kennedy for 12 years and now lives independently.  He’s been a successful intern at both the Department of the Interior and at Yes! Organic Market.  Deandre himself said, “School is like a family to me and I’m going to miss everyone.”

Imani King, another 2017 graduate, has come so far from when we first met her 2 years ago.  Because of her hard work, she conquered paralyzing social anxiety.  She overcame her fears and learned how to navigate the Metro system and find her way around her internship in the cavernous federal building.  Imani came to Kennedy scared, with a full time personal aide, but moves forward today with the skills, training and confidence to find her own way. 

Christena Juhans had been with Kennedy for 12 years before last week’s graduation.  At graduation, she said to me, “I’ve never been to a graduation before.”  Her success on graduation day was beyond her imagination, but not beyond ours at the Kennedy School.  We believed in her potential, just as we believe in every student at our school.

Her grandmother wanted to attend the ceremony but had no way to get there.  I wasn’t going to let her grandmother miss seeing Christena graduate, so one of our dedicated staff picked her up and drove her to the ceremony.  Her grandmother walked up to me and said, simply, “This school has gone above and beyond for Christena.”

She’s right, and it’s intentional.  We are called to go above and beyond at the Kennedy School.  And in return, our students exceed expectations. We do whatever it takes because that’s what every student deserves.  Our team’s investment, Catholic Charities’ investment, made possible by generous support of our community and partners, is repaid back in spades by the students’ individual achievements and successes.  Seeing them move forward in their own way in the world is a milestone for them, and a monumental achievement for us all.

Here’s to the class of 2017!

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Best Birthday Present

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Thank God my birthday has finally arrived! Ever since the gala in April, which was spectacular, people have been wishing me a happy birthday. They normally say, “sorry I missed your birthday” but this year I’ve been saying “no, it actually hasn’t come yet” (it’s tomorrow June 10th). I don’t like to make a big deal about birthdays. Not because I’m at all worried about getting older or feeling sad that the years have gone by, but rather, I’m not big on the attention that comes with it and I like to spend every day as if it was my birthday, doing my best to help others.
You already do this but if you want to give me a present, keep serving our
clients, reaching out to others and saying “YES”! In fact, we kicked off our Summer of Service this week. Catholic Charities gave me the best gift - 70 volunteer service projects for my 70th birthday. I'm honored by this initiative and I love the culture we’ve created where we can take great pride in our willingness to respond positively to everyone. As the song goes “ALL ARE WELCOME”.

Speaking of songs, last Sunday night as part of my homily, I invited everyone at my 8pm mass to join in singing Kerry Mooney’s Easter version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. We added an additional verse for Pentecost and it made a big impact on lots of people. You can watch it here

Here is an email I got after the service from one of our friends:

John, I finally got to show up and witness what you have accomplished with this Mass. Arriving at the church, the parking lots was full and overflowing. The percentage of young adults, families and teenagers was impressive and speaks to the value of what you have accomplished. The music was truly a most meaningful form of prayer, the words were new to me and most meaningful, especially that which substituted for your sermon. I was in need of a spiritual lift and a sense of hope for the future of our church and its relationship with our younger members. Had lots of tears of joy Sunday evening. Thank you.

So, today – the day before my birthday – I’m thinking about those words and all of you. When I think of Catholic Charities and all of you, I think “Hallelujah”! Have a great weekend.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Kicking off a Summer of Service

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I love the summer. It’s not just the beach, the warm weather and the cookouts. It’s not only the family time and enjoying friends in a more relaxed atmosphere. It is a chance to catch our breath and enjoy the blessings of a beautiful season but over and above that, I enjoy the many young people who join our team as volunteers and interns for the summer months. They bring enthusiasm, laughter, creativity and inquisitive minds – anxious to learn all they can about the great work we do at Catholic Charities.

On June 7th, we will launch the Catholic Charities DC “Summer of Service,” an initiative developed to encourage volunteerism in the summer season.  This effort is a three-month long campaign that will invite residents of the Washington-area from all walks of life to participate in giving the gift of
Volunteers sprucing up Mulumba House shelter
community service to the community by volunteering in any of the 70 unique service projects we are offering throughout the summer. These opportunities will address a range of issues including hunger, homelessness, community restoration, and more.  They will provide necessary support to meet some of the most pressing needs in our community.  Volunteers will come from our parishes, our high schools and colleges, organizations and corporations. We will be joined by other non-profits and even those who come from out of town to experience the wonder of Washington while also helping those in need.  I dream of families who come together for a particular project, parishes that unite around one issue and companies that have created a corporate culture around giving back.

It’s exciting to set the stage for a wonderful community to give back their time, talent and treasure in support of those most in need. Poverty doesn’t take a summer vacation, but the call to service doesn’t either and we are here to help those in need. I hope you’ll join us too!


Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Remembering Our Fallen Service Members

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I wrote last week about Memorial Day but this week, as I did last year, I want to remember in a very special way, all those who serve and have served our country as part of our armed forces. Particularly this weekend, we remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in battles throughout the world – protecting our freedoms and our national interests. I’m sure that you have had the experience of spending time with a family member or friend who has lost a loved one in combat. The sadness continues and it really never goes away.

I can remember losing a number of friends during the Vietnam war. I had a high draft number so I
was not called to serve but some of my buddies from high school and college went to Vietnam and never came back. When you know someone personally, attended classes with them, and admired their courage, it is very difficult to let them go. I try to visit the Vietnam memorial at least once a year - usually when friends are in town who have not experienced that beautiful but somber place. Each time I go, the memories of my friends Art, Jimmy and Tom come back to me. I’m still sad for them and their families 50 years later.

So, over the weekend and certainly on Monday, say a prayer for our fallen service members and their families including those who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq who still deal with the after effects of those wars. So many of our clients are veterans who have been deeply affected by the experience of war. I’ll be praying for them as well.

Enjoy your three day weekend. Summer unofficially begins tomorrow!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

This Week I...

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This week I am thinking hard about the countless staff and volunteers who work tirelessly to deliver our mission at Catholic Charities. 

After what seems to have been a very busy Spring with lots of agency activities and a number of talks and presentations by me for various groups, I’m looking forward to Summer and it’s unofficial beginning next weekend, including Memorial Day on Monday. While our offices don’t follow the school calendar, many of our activities still revolve around families whose children have the Summer off, and many who celebrate graduations during this season. It is also a time to refocus and recharge. 

I wonder how many of the team are feeling after a very busy Spring, as I try to put myself in your shoes. So many of them are a frontline presence for the people who come our way. What is it like to be a caregiver all day long to someone with developmental differences? What is it like to have session after session with those who have behavioral health issues? How do you cope with people in our shelters who are dealing with social issues beyond your competence (i.e. addictions, mental health or legal issues)? What is it like to try to help hundreds of people who are now frightened by immigration policy changes that are constantly in the news? How do you feel when trying to provide dental and medical care knowing that issues are far more serious than an individual can afford? How do you cope with someone who has lost their job or who comes here for asylum and can’t find work?

Each situation mentioned above is real. The team finds ways to help people whose struggles are seemingly beyond imagination and at times it affects their states of mind trying to give “help that empowers and hope that lasts.” We all have pressures, but I think many times, their pressures are far more difficult than mine. It is important to stay true to the common goal of helping those in need gain access to opportunity and hope. As we approach the unofficial beginning of Summer and look ahead to June, I hope everyone can find some time to recharge your batteries, take some vacation and enjoy the beautiful weather. This time to refocus is necessary if we are going to continue helping people to the best of our ability. 

Let us all—no matter whether you are an official member of the team or a supporter or someone just interested in making a difference in the lives of others-- rejoice in our common efforts to help our community. For me, it is a ministry, never a job. I take great comfort in believing the same is true for you, too.