Opening Doors

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IMG_0185Catholic Charities of Onondaga County serving  the community

By Connie Berry
Sun editor

Every day dozens of children across Onondaga County walk home after school only to be greeted by an empty house. There are numerous senior citizens who need help managing their personal finances, making small repairs around their homes, eating a healthy meal each day and keeping out of harm’s way. There are homeless men and women who need a bed for the night and dinner — likely their only meal of the day. There are refugees who make the often treacherous journey from all they know and love to find themselves in need of virtually everything when they arrive in the country. These are just some of the people served regularly by Catholic Charities of Onondaga County (CCOC). The organization’s programs touch lives too many to count.

The people who work for CCOC,  approximately 250 employees at 40 programs at 27 sites, are among those who can go to work each day knowing they make a difference in their community and in individual lives. Nancy Eron works in the offices at CCOC as a communications manager and she said she is “in awe” of the people “working in the front lines.”

“The solutions they come up with are amazing,” Eron said. “For instance, Eleanor Carr in the elderly services program, she finds solutions to things most of us don’t think about like, ‘What will happen to my pet when I die?’ Real problems and worries people need assistance with, that’s what she does every day.”

Everyone knows it is often the “little things” that get lost in the details that can cause anxiety. For the women at Dorothy Day House who find themselves homeless because of domestic abuse, job loss, illness or any other reason, the immediate problem may not be so little. They need support and compassion, along with a warm bed and safe environment. But, the toiletries and food donated by parishes and individuals —those are little things that mean a lot to the women at Dorothy Day House.

A recent tour of the house, which is nearly always filled to capacity with approximately 20 women and sometimes their children, found one 48-year-old woman helping to prepare the evening meal. She said cooking helps her relieve stress.

“I lost my job in 2009 and then I got very depressed,” she said. “I found myself homeless.
I was burned out, no income, no medication, no insurance. Thank God my children are grown and I didn’t have them with me.”

She finally made her way to the Department of Social Services who helped place her at Dorothy Day House.

“They welcomed me and I made myself at home,” she said while looking in the cupboards for the rice she was going to cook to go with the chicken for that night’s supper.

“The people here are so supportive and understanding,” she said. “I have a roof over my head, something to eat and it’s safe. I sleep well here. There are a lot of women here facing the same issues as me. We’re homeless. I am so thankful for Dorothy Day House. This is home. I’ve got a caseworker to work with and talk to. I’ve let so much out since I got here — I feel 20 pounds lighter,” she laughed.

Melody Holmes is program manager of Dorthy Day House and she said the women come to the house with a variety of issues. One woman arrived on Christmas Eve, she said, and the rest of the women made her feel welcome right away. There are common areas in the house and most bedrooms hold more than one guest. The carpet is worn in many places and the furniture and beds are well used. The house had been recently painted and the walls were bright and clean. The shelves in the basement were stocked with food items and some toiletries. Holmes said, “The holidays were good to us.” But there’s always room for more donations. Holmes said when the women get ready to leave to go out on their own, Dorothy Day House likes to provide them with some kitchen essentials and a few other things to get them started.

“When the women come here,” Holmes said, “we try to meet them where they are, not where we think they should be.”

Rick Kline runs the Hawley Youth Organization at Syracuse’s Northeast Community Center. It is housed in Dr. Weeks School and is a natural fit for the children who require after school care. There is a teen center and a preschool program as well. Kline said the children get help with their homework, they use the gymnasium and the swimming pool. Like most of the people in charge of CCOC programs, Kline tends to find resources wherever he can.

“We take field trips in better weather,” Kline explained. “We check out all the free events in the community. We have to rent buses for the day in order to do that.”

Je’kailah Coker, a 10-year-old who is part of the Hawley Youth Organization’s after school program, was working intently with Andrea Martin from the Open Hand Theater in Syracuse during a recent visit there. The two carefully worked on drawings for a costume. Je’kailah was completely absorbed in her creative process. Martin is one of many community members partnering with the Hawley Youth Organization.

At sites all over the county, CCOC is making sure that the children are safe and cared for, the elderly are not alone, the homeless are fed and clothed and so many more aspects of Gospel teaching are practiced.

CCOC holds its major fundraiser, the House of Providence Dinner, each spring. Toni Maxwell is associate director for development and public relations at CCOC. She said the budget for 2011 is $13 million and with lean organizational management, 90 cents of every dollar goes to programming services.

“We have a culture of very thoughtful, careful fiscal management,” Maxwell said.

“We have a culture of, ‘We will make it work with very little,’” Eron added.

Maxwell said donors step in regularly when there are needs.

“We’ve held pretty steady even during these difficult economic times,” Maxwell said. “I think our donors care so much that if we are able to tell them what the needs are, they will help.”

Today, the needs are many. Dorothy Day House could use some sprucing up and everyday items are needed for the women. The Hawley Youth Organization could use some funds for those field trips. There are countless other continuous needs at all the sites.

The guest at Dorothy Day House mentioned previously who was so grateful for the hospitality and compassion she experienced summed it up this way, “They drive us to appointments. They give us toothpaste and a toothbrush. They gave me a pair of gloves. All these things help make me feel like, ‘Yes, I can do this one day at a time.’ I’ll cook for 100 people if I have to. I need to give back.”

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