Catholic Charities: ‘We have never stopped serving’

Joann Slavery, a volunteer for a Catholic Charities food pantry in Kansas City, Kansas, helps prepare the pantry before clients start to arrive. Volunteers at Catholic Charities have decreased as the coronavirus pandemic has worsened throughout the nation. LEAVEN PHOTO BY LORI WOOD HABIGER

by Joe Bollig
joe.bollig@theleaven.org

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — “I’m asked constantly,” said Lauren Solidum, president and CEO of Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, “what is the Catholic Church doing in response to this other than shutting down Masses?”

Her answer is simple — yet challenging.

“We have never stopped serving,” she said.

“And we are the church,” she continued, “we are the hands and feet [of Christ]. That’s an incredible message for our Catholic community to hear.”

But it is true that the coronavirus pandemic has forced Catholic Charities to take a long, hard look at its operations. And it has had to prioritize the “big three” necessities for those they serve, while shutting down or adapting other services.

At the same time the faith-based agency is facing rising demand, it’s experiencing fewer donations and a dwindling volunteer base.

“Our priorities in this crisis are food, shelter and health care,” said Solidum.

One of the biggest concerns at Catholic Charities is that there will be an increase in demand and a decrease in donations and volunteers. LEAVEN PHOTO BY LORI WOOD HABIGER

Catholic Charities serves low-income residents in 21 counties in northeast Kansas. It has 240 employees, assisted by about 1,700 volunteers a month.

Starting March 18, all Catholic Charities locations except the seven Family Support Centers and the Hope Distribution Center in Wyandotte County closed for 15 days.

The two TurnStyles thrift stores in Overland Park are closed and some administrative personnel have been asked to work from home.

English as a Second Language classes, cooking classes, financial literacy education, tax preparation assistance, workforce development and higher education programs have ceased.

Some services are being provided over the phone.

“We are still doing case management,” said Denise Ogilvie, vice president of community engagement.

“Instead of doing that face-to-face,” she said, “if people need help with utilities or rent assistance or need to be re-housed, they can call the office and we do as much of that work as we can over the phone to comply with government requirements [for social distancing].

“In addition, families that we’ve been working with and have an ongoing relationship — for employment and financial literacy — we’re continuing to work with them and make appointments over the phone.”

A sign outside of the Catholic Charities food pantry in Kansas City, Kansas, outlines the new rules put in place while the city deals with the coronavirus pandemic. LEAVEN PHOTO BY LORI WOOD HABIGER

The Resource Bus, the Shalom House men’s shelter in Kansas City, Kansas, Catholic Community Hospice and In-Home Support for senior citizens (meal preparation, transportation, grocery shopping, light housekeeping and prescription assistance) also continue to function.

“We’re still running our Kids Summer Food Program,” said Solidum. “This would normally take off at the beginning of May. We’re starting it early. This is for kids who are on free or reduced school lunches. And we are continuing our mass food distribution that happens in Olathe and Wyandotte County.”

With the Kids Summer Food Program, volunteers pack sack lunches that families can pick up at the Family Support Centers and take home.

Pantries under pressure

One of Solidum’s greatest concerns is that the food pantries at the seven Family Support Centers could face increased demand not only from the regular clients, but also from those who have been newly unemployed or unable to work because of the coronavirus crisis.

“That’s our biggest fear,” said Solidum. “So far [as of March 19], we have not seen a dramatic increase.

“But that’s on everyone’s hearts and minds right now.

“We want to be prepared for when that comes. The biggest piece of our strategy is partnership with other organizations, because we know we can’t fulfill that need solo.”

Catholic Charities has been working with social service organizations and agencies such as Harvesters and Happy Bottoms, and faith-based communities such as the Church of the Resurrection, Metro Lutheran Ministries, the Salvation Army and Jewish Family Services.

Cans of peaches are stocked at the Catholic Charities food pantry in Kansas City, Kansas. LEAVEN PHOTO BY LORI WOOD HABIGER

“The biggest piece of this is trying to understand what we’re doing and what they’re doing,” said Solidum, “and how we unite forces to at least put a dent in the need.

“The second piece for us is that we’ll continue to strategize around what the need is. We anticipate it will be rent, utilities and food. We’re already speaking to individuals who have supported us in the past . . . in creating some disaster basic needs funds available for these particular things.”

Ogilvie said Olathe staff have told her that some smaller food pantries operated by other entities have closed, so clients normally served by those will now come to Catholic Charities.

Panic shopping has also had an effect.

“People are afraid of the unknown and are stockpiling,” said Solidum, “which is a negative from a donation viewpoint.

“Stockpiling hurts us and the people we serve.”

 One great concern is that the food pantries will see an increase in need for food and hygienic products while donations are declining.

On average, there are three parish food drives happening a week, said Ogilvie. Now, however, all public Masses have been prohibited.

Only Prince of Peace Parish in Olathe had a food drive on the weekend of March 21-22, and St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Leawood held a drive from March 27-30. At both parishes, a truck was in the parking lot for parishioners to drop off donations.

Tim Renfro, a Knight of Columbus from St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Leawood, takes a bag of groceries from a woman during a Catholic Charities drive at the parish. LEAVEN PHOTO BY LORI WOOD HABIGER

Additionally, school closing has caused the cancellation of “Serve Days.” During Serve Days, students collect food and do other activities to support Catholic Charities.

“We’ve seen a decrease in donations from grocery stores,” said Ogilvie. “Grocery stores donate leftover product or product about to expire — it’s called grocery store rescue. We’re still doing that, but it’s a lower amount than previously.”

Catholic Charities has made appeals to pastors in Johnson and Wyandotte counties for food donations as well.

Unexpected help came from St. Agnes School in Roeland Park. The school had unused food in its cafeteria that was going to go to waste, so they called to donate it. This prompted Catholic Charities to ask other schools for donations of their unused food.

In a Facebook video posted on March 20, Solidum said that the supply of fresh produce was dwindling and many pantry shelves would soon be bare. She appealed for donations of nonperishable and canned foods, and also financial contributions and volunteers.

“We need your help desperately,” she said.

Loss of volunteers

Another challenge facing Catholic Charities now is the loss of volunteers.

“Our volunteers have been cut by a third,” said Solidum. “Between the Serve Days and groups scheduled to come to the Hope Distribution Center to sort food, and the everyday person volunteering at TurnStyles and the administration office — we’ve seen that number dwindle.”

Deputy Grand Knight Robin Snyder, loads a Catholic Charities truck during a food drive at St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Leawood. LEAVEN PHOTO BY LORI WOOD HABIGER

This is due to a high element of fear.

“The average age of our volunteers is probably late 50s to mid-60s,” said Solidum. “When we think about the population that is potentially at higher risk  — that’s many of the people who are volunteering with us right now.”

Catholic Charities is making strong appeals for volunteers.

“We’re sending out information in our e-news blasts, we’re posting it on our social media channels, it’s listed on our website, and we’re making calls to people in our own database who have previously volunteered,” said Solidum.

The loss of volunteers has hindered the operations of the Family Support Centers, which is why they are open only three days a week (Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays), and many operations (such as TurnStyles) have been closed.  Having fewer volunteers is another reason why Catholic Charities decided to focus on food, shelter and health care.

“We just can’t sustain them [all] without volunteers,” said Solidum.

The spirit of love, not fear

Many people do not have the resources to deal with “regular” life, much less a time of pandemic crisis. Catholic Charities is their lifeline.

“God has given us a spirit of love, not fear,” said Solidum. “Despite the fear . . . love will overcome.”

She is proud of her staff and volunteers.

Food labels hang at the Catholic Charities food pantry in Kansas City, Kansas. LEAVEN PHOTO BY LORI WOOD HABIGER

“I have never witnessed more incredible teamwork amid complete uncertainty in my life, and I’m so proud of them,” she said. “The people we’re seeing in our Family Support Centers are frantic, broken, because they have no idea what they’re going to do now that they’ve been laid off.

“They have no idea what they will do for employment, and just keeping food in the house [is a challenge] now that their children are at home.”

Solidum was at a Family Support Center when she met a single mother with three children. The woman was sobbing with relief and gratitude because she was finally getting help.

“Like in every other circumstance, Catholic Charities will remain a pillar,” said Solidum. “We will remain a trusted resource they can turn to when they are in complete despair.”

Contact Catholic Charities

• To make a financial donation to Catholic Charities, click here.

• To volunteer, click here or here. The volunteer department can be reached directly by phone at (913) 433-2081.

• Contact by phone (general switchboard) at (913) 433-2100.

• Contact through Facebook here.

• Contact through Twitter here.

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