by Jill Ragar Esfeld
Special to The Leaven
OVERLAND PARK — “What we’re seeing is a lot of people who thought it could never be them — they’re coming in for help,” said Jan Lewis, executive director of Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, at a recent meeting with Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann.
And then she illustrated her statement with a story.
“We helped a gentleman back in August and September who was literally at the point of taking his own life,” she recalled. “He was a college graduate, had a graduate degree, had worked for three Fortune 500 firms — and had found himself unemployed, homeless and devastated.”
Fortunately, Johnson County Mental Health Center referred the man to Catholic Charities. An Olathe case manager for the homeless helped him get temporary housing and also assisted him with his job search. Eventually he landed a corporate management job with benefits.
He expressed his gratitude to Catholic Charities in a letter.
“Thank God for an organization like Catholic Charities,” he said. “I owe you my life.”
Lewis shared the story with the archbishop when he expressed his hope that the church was stepping forward to help people, particularly in this difficult economy.
Lewis also told the archbishop that, this year, Catholic Charities had already spent ahead of its budget and, over the last month, was having to turn people away.
In response, the archbishop asked that the Call to Share’s emergency reserve funds be accessed. He requested a donation of $100,000 be allocated to Catholic Charities.
Lewis was moved beyond words when she heard the amount.
“Well, it made me cry,” she said. “I’m crying right now talking about it. Because it just speaks from the heart that people care, and that the archbishop cares.”
In time of crisis
The Call to Share reserves were initiated to serve this very purpose, said Jerry Mayne, chief financial officer of the archdiocese.
“We try to build up a little reserve so, in the event we have a down year and collections don’t come in as well as normal, we don’t have to cut budgets as dramatically,” he explained. “So we’ve built up a little reserve, and it’s right at about 15 percent of what our normal distribution is.”
Lewis said the financial crunch at Catholic Charities is due to excessive need rather than a lack of donations.
“We were very fortunate this past year: Our faith community continued to step up to the plate and provide assistance, so we did not see a drop in contributions coming in,” she said. “What we did see was a dramatic rise in [the number of] people in need of assistance.”
As the economic downturn continues and the job market is slow to recover, Lewis said the organization is seeing a new rise in demand prompted by people who have been unemployed for a number of months, have started to deplete their own reserves, and are having to come in for assistance.
Catholic Charities received a regular allocation from the Archbishop’s Call to Share last year. Those dollars, along with the Christmas collection, result in about $700,000 of support for its work. Lewis estimated the budget runs between $15-16 million. The rest of the budget is met through fundraising efforts.
“We had budgeted to spend, the entire fiscal year, about $2.9 million in this category of [emergency] assistance for the family and the individual,” Lewis said. “That includes [paying] the staff that meets with the people, keeping the lights on in our building, and all those things.”
However, through September, Catholic Charities had already spent over a million dollars.
“So we were spending faster than we had planned,” said Lewis. “We were really at a point of having to turn people away. And it’s awful for our staff and volunteers to have to do that.”
The severity of the crisis is clearly reflected in the numbers.
“Two years ago, we touched about 48,000 people coming through our assistance center,” said Lewis. “Last year that number was 67,000 touches.
“It’s early in the [fiscal] year,” she continued, “but it looks like our monthover-month numbers are up again. So we may be on pace for close to 80,000 touches this year.”
As part of the archdiocesesan-wide response to the struggling national economy, Catholic Charities enacted a pay freeze. None of its employees is getting any kind of pay increases this year. It also made several programming cuts.
“We have to protect the core of what we’re doing, and that is emergency assistance,” said Lewis. “So we actually reallocated some budget dollars away from some other things toward this emergency assistance.”
An important change included restructuring the mental health counseling operations.
In the past, the organization found that people are unlikely to make a return trip to Catholic Charities for an appointment with a mental health counselor. Having counselors available at that first point of contact is more productive.
“So we have trained professionals available when somebody comes to the door asking for food,” Lewis said. “It’s more of an immediate touch assessment. It’s more in line with what we’re being called to do at Catholic Charities.”
Lewis said when the national economy first began to plummet, she knew Catholic Charities would see an increase in need. But her strong faith wouldn’t let her worry about it.
“I just really do believe that God will provide if we are on mission and we are doing the work he wants us to do,” she said. “And in fact, you know, he did.”
A giving community
Leslie Knop, executive director of stewardship and development for the archdiocese, is responsible for the Archbishop’s Call to Share campaign. She said the continued generosity of the archdiocesan community has made this assistance to Catholic Charities possible.
The campaign achieved a record amount this year despite the economic circumstances facing our region and nation.
“Our theme this year is hope,” said Knop. “Through the challenges that so many of our families were facing over this past year, they demonstrated their hope and trust in God by continuing to make their generous gifts to the Archbishop’s Call to Share.
“When we were promoting the campaign last year, we were asking people to give as generously as they could, because we knew the needs were going to go up,” he said.
“We’re just a couple of months from finishing the campaign for last year and starting the new one,” he continued. “But we’re projecting we’re going to be up just slightly from the prior year, which is good.”
This is only the second time in the history of Call to Share that the reserve has been used. The existence of the reserve fund itself speaks volumes about the generosity of the archdiocesan community.
“To me, it’s the Holy Spirit at work,” said Knop. “The fact we have been able to establish a reserve fund over the last few years is a real testament to the love for Christ and our beautiful mother, the church, by the people of northeast Kansas.
Lewis said the gift has been earmarked just for direct assistance.
“So that means $100,000 basically is going to flow through Catholic Charities and into the hands of people in need,” she said. “It will probably help 600 to 700 families.”
Although Catholic Charities is happy to be able to assist families who have emergency financial needs, the real focus of the organization goes beyond immediate assistance to helping families solve the problems that underlie their need.
“The real help comes through the dialogue that flows between our caseworker and the client,” said Lewis. “The most important piece of what Catholic Charities does is to be a compassionate listener, a voice of wisdom to walk with people through their crisis.”
Catholic Charities is especially grateful to Archbishop Naumann for leading the archdiocese through his example of true Catholic charity.
“This was all from the archbishop’s heart,” said Lewis. “I really want him to receive the credit for standing in leadership and saying, ‘There’s more that we need to do, as a church, as the body of Christ.’”
What can you do to help?
Donate nonperishable food. What generally drives people to Catholic Charities is a need for food. All the food given out comes from donations. There is always a need after the Christmas holiday when charitable giving slows. January and February are sparse months on the pantry shelves.
Volunteer. Catholic Charities emergency assistance centers have volunteers that help welcome clients coming in the door and help them fill out forms. Just a few hours of your time each week could make a difference.
Make a holiday gathering meaningful. If you’re having a holiday gathering, invite guests to bring food to donate to the food pantry or a small contribution to help people in need.
Plan now to attend the Snowball event. Catholic Charities’ major fundraiser is the Snowball. This year’s event will take place on January 16, 2010.
For more information visit the Web site at: www.catholiccharitiesks.org.