Church programs help fill essential needs every day
By Tim Puet
Many people who study the American economy say it’s beginning to recover from the sharp decline that began in late 2007, but the long lines that continue at many soup kitchens, food pantries, and centers that provide clothing to the needy indicate otherwise.
As it has been for most of the past 2,000 years, the Catholic Church is in the forefront of those providing help for people affected by economic difficulty.
In doing so, it is following an essential portion of what might be in modern terms be called part of the Church’s mission statement as proclaimed by Jesus Christ, its founder: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, … (I was) naked and you clothed me (Matthew 25:35-36).
The largest assistance programs in the diocese which provide the essential need of food to hundreds of people on a daily basis are the Holy Family Soup Kitchen, the Community Kitchen, and St. Lawrence Haven, all in or near downtown Columbus,
The Holy Family kitchen, in the former Holy Family School just across the Scioto River from downtown, is the city’s largest facility of its type. It was founded in the late 1970s by Msgr. Francis Schweitzer, who was pastor of Holy Family Church for 26 years, and now serves about 800 people a hot lunch on weekdays from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. It also has a pantry which supplies a week’s worth of food to about 100 families per day.
“Those numbers have been pretty consistent for about the last two years,” said Frances Carr, who has worked at the pantry since 1982 and has been its director and only paid staffer for most of that time.
“In the last year or so, I’ve heard more stories about people losing their homes through foreclosures and being forced to move in with family members or even to become homeless, Carr said. “At a time like this, my job sometimes seems to involve psychology as much as anything. You have to try constantly to keep people from being discouraged. So many have said they never thought they’d need to come here, but today, just about everyone is only a paycheck away from having to need a soup kitchen.
“I’m noticing that more people come here earlier in the month now. It used to be you’d see a lot more people after the 15th of the month, when they’d used up the money they’d received through unemployment or other benefits. Now the increase starts as early as the seventh or the eighth. It also used to be that most folks who came here were from Columbus. Now I see them from as far away as Reynoldsburg, Baltimore, Delaware, even Waverly,” 60 miles away.
Carr returned to the kitchen last week after being at home since mid-January because of an operation to remove nine tumors from her right hand. It was her first extended absence since she began working there. “I couldn’t wait to get back,” she said while being constantly interrupted by phone calls and questions. “I’m not one to sit around. I can’t drive and I can’t write, and this is what keeps me going.”
Carr said there have been no major problems at the kitchen since the theft of two large refrigerator compressors and copper wiring caused it to close for about two weeks in May and June of 2008. Additional fencing was put around the compressors, new locks were installed, and other measures were taken to increase security.
Food for the kitchen and pantry comes from the Mid-Ohio Foodbank and a variety of church and civic groups and individual donors. Carr said that paper products, cereal, and canned meats were the items that most often were in short supply.
Besides taking care of people’s physical hunger, the kitchen tries to help people’s spiritual needs through its affiliation with Holy Family Church and most recently through the assistance of the Children of Mary, a semicontemplative community of women dedicated to spreading the message of Jesus’ real presence in the Eucharist.
Sisters from the community have been serving food at the kitchen on Wednesdays for about a year-and-a-half, said Sister Mary Teresa, a member of the community, which is based in rural Licking County. After a few months, they began handing out rosaries and setting up a table about the Eucharist and their work.
Recently, their “Emmanuel Wednesdays” have included an adoration chapel they set up in a curtained-off area just outside the kitchen. Prayer and Eucharistic adoration takes place there while food is being served. About 20 people, led by Mother Margaret Mary, the community’s founder, were in prayer in front of the Eucharist when the Catholic Times visited the kitchen on a Wednesday earlier this month.
The Community Kitchen in the former St. John School on Columbus’ near east side has been in existence since 1979. It was incorporated in 1985 as a legally separate organization from the Community of Holy Rosary and St. John, whose facilities it uses.
“Last year, we served about 90,000 people,” said the kitchen’s executive director, Carol Trowbridge. “That was actually down from about 100,000 the year before, but I don’t think it means there are fewer people in need. It’s more about the transitional nature of our neighborhood and the number of foreclosures we’ve had,” as can be seen by driving in any direction around the blocks near the church, where boarded-up houses have become a common sight.
The kitchen serves a hot lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. every day except Sunday. It also has been serving breakfast from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. on the same days since Oct. 1. “We started by just serving oatmeal, but now we do a full menu, things like scrambled eggs one day and sausage gravy another,” said Trowbridge, who came to the kitchen in June 2010 to succeed the late Don Ferrell, its director for 13 years before his death.
“We average about 25 people a day for breakfast, but those numbers go up considerably when schools have a scheduled day off or a snow day, so we really pay attention to the school schedule,” she said.
The St. John Center also has a pantry that’s open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9 a.m. to noon and a clothing room with hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. The pantry is open to all, but the clothing program is limited to residents of the ZIP codes surrounding the center. Free bus passes also are available there, but are limited to people with medical appointments and those in their first two weeks of a new job.
The center has a goal of “promoting learning, literacy, and leadership” and serves as a hub for a number of other activities, including computer classes and courses to help people earn a high-school equivalency diploma. It also serves as the YMCA of Central Ohio’s truancy intervention center.
“We’re pretty busy until about 1 p.m., but we’d like to do more between 1 and 3,” Trowbridge said. One example of the type of events the center would like to conduct regularly during that time is a game afternoon which is scheduled for Monday, Feb. 21, Presidents Day, which is a day off school.
Children are invited to come to the building from 1 to 3 p.m. on that day and play a variety of board games which have been donated to the center. Trowbridge is looking for donations of used games and books in hopes the center might have enough of those items to give some to children at the game day.
She said that by next year, she hopes to have healthy cooking classes for families once a week. She’s looking for a chef or a nutritionist who will conduct the classes, during which participants would be able to cook one or two nutritious dinners to be taken home.
“We always appreciate food donations, but if people want to help out, we’d prefer cash,” she said, explaining that the kitchen’s discounts at the food bank and other places allow it to stretch a dollar further than a shopper could on his or her own.
St. Lawrence Haven, which operates from the basement of the former Holy Cross School, is the city’s oldest Church-related pantry, with origins going back to the mid-1950s and the Brothers of the Good Shepherd who formerly lived at Holy Cross Church. For most of its history, it has been managed by the diocesan St. Vincent de Paul Society, and many of its volunteers have come from parish SVDP groups.
From 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. weekdays, it distributes bags consisting of at least three sandwiches, a packaged meal, a salad, one or two sweet items, bread or buns, a drink, and fruit or a vegetable when available, said its manager, Heather Swiger. For 52 years, many of those items have come from Sanese Services, a vending machine supplier which donates more than 300,000 items each year. Other donations come from food stores and parishes. Unlike most area pantries, the Haven does not use the food bank.
Swiger said the Haven serves about 350 people per day, a number that’s been pretty consistent in the two years she has been its manager. It is staffed on a rotating basis by volunteer crews, many of which have been together for years. For instance, Wednesday crew leader Joe Buttress has been a volunteer since 1983.
Ted McBroom, who has volunteered there since 1985, is at the Haven nearly every day and said it changed his life. “I came here because I was living in the streets, and I just kept coming back because I liked it here and found something good,” he said. “I’ve had my ups and downs, but no matter what happened to me, I knew I could always count on the people here, and I’m happy to give back.
“One thing that surprises me is that even after all these years, a lot of homeless people still aren’t aware of this place, so I try to spread the word about it whenever I can.”
Located a short distance from the Haven, just off the Main Street exit of Interstate 71, is perhaps the diocese’s best-known assistance agency, JOIN, the Joint Organization for Inner-City Needs, which serves a more broad-based role than most other service organizations.
JOIN has limited supplies of canned and packaged food available, but it is mainly a clearinghouse to provide the poor and people in need of emergency assistance in the Columbus area with both direct service and referrals to other agencies.
Every weekday from 10 a.m. to noon and 1 to 2 p.m., dozens of people line up at the JOIN office and efficiently receive assistance. Among other things, JOIN provides gasoline, prescription assistance, eyeglasses, household items, infant formula, funeral assistance, money to help pay utility bills and provide bus passes, and vouchers for birth certificates.
It has clothing available for people’s immediate needs, and its garage space is filled with clothes for people of all ages, which are distributed from 10 a.m. to noon Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays by the diocesan St. Vincent de Paul Society. Clothes may be donated from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.
“Almost every other call we get at this time of year is for assistance with rent or utility payments,” said Ruth Beckman, who this year marks her 30th anniversary as director of JOIN, which has been serving people since 1967. “The utility calls are really starting to pick up now (early February) because the weather has been so cold.
“One thing we’re in great need of, which most people don’t think about, is things like hand cream and lotions. Again, this is because of the weather. People of different skin types need personal items like this because of the way the weather affects them. Candles also get snapped up as quickly as they come in, because they provide light and heat for people living on the streets.”
JOIN maintains an average caseload of nearly 3,400 clients per month, an increase of 600 in three years, and refers more than 500 households a month to other agencies.