Call to Help ‘The Least of These’ Drives Charities (Andy Telli, Tennessee Register)

Posted 10/20/2017

Donna Rossi, who has lived all of her 64 years in Nashville, was living with her cousin in a house in the Rosebank neighborhood until last April. That's when her cousin died, leaving Rossi with no place to go.

"I couldn't afford the rent on my income," said Rossi. "You can't pay $1,500 a month on a $1,200 income."

So for the last six months, Rossi has been living in her car with her poodle Coco, driving around Nashville looking for spots to park at night. "I didn't think I would ever be out here."

But she finds a safe port three days a week at the Loaves and Fishes program at Holy Name Church in East Nashville, where she receives a free breakfast, lunch, a helping hand, and a sympathetic smile. "They're very nice people," Rossi said of the staff and volunteers who serve meals to the homeless and needy. "They're really sweet."

Loaves and Fishes, a Catholic Charities of Tennessee program that will mark the 35th anniversary of its founding in November, is one of many Catholic-affiliated programs that offers charity to meet the immediate needs of their neighbors.

A Catholic's call to offer charity to those in need is clear in the Gospel. In the Gospel of Mark when Jesus was asked "Which is the first of all the commandments?" he answered by quoting from the Old Testament, saying: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.' The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these."

And in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said that on Judgment Day, he will embrace those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and visited the prisoner: "Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me."

At Loaves and Fishes, the guests get more than food. "It's not just that we're feeding the guests who come in," said Wendy Overlock, the coordinator of the program. "We're providing a place where someone identifies them, they're welcomed and recognized as a human being and an important person."

The needy can find a similar welcome at the North Nashville Outreach, another long-standing Catholic Charities program located at the McGruder Family Resource Center on 25th Avenue North in North Nashville.

"Our 30-year reputation is what's gotten us this far," said Alisha Haddock, director of the McGruder Center. "People know they are going to be respected. They know they are loved. They know they're going to be treated with kindness."

‘The basic need for food'

The work starts with a meal or a bag of groceries. "The mission is to meet the basic need for food in a safe environment," Overlock said.

At Loaves and Fishes, guests can receive a typical breakfast of a hardboiled egg, two slices of bacon or sausage, toast, a sweet pastry, and coffee, from 8:30 to 9 a.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, including holidays. From 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on the same days, they can get a hot lunch of a meat dish, vegetable, fruit, bread and desert served by some of the program's 200 volunteers from churches, schools, business, and mission groups.

"The volunteers are the heart of this program," Overlock said. "Three (staff) people cannot feed 70 people by themselves."

Loaves and Fishes feeds about 70 guests for breakfast and about 130 for lunch. "Our guests are our homeless neighbors and also our housed neighbors," Overlock said. "They come from all over. Some of the folks we know ... don't live in East Nashville ... but they get here to eat."

Some of their guests are elderly or disabled, Overlock said. Others are working, but they can't stretch their pay far enough to meet all their needs, she said.

And some of the homeless guests have jobs, Overlock said. "Some of them are able to eat breakfast with us and then go to work," she said, and one couple comes to Loaves and Fishes on their lunch hour. "Some people we only see on Saturday because Monday through Friday they're working."

Loaves and Fishes welcomes everyone who needs help, Overlock said. "We still do not have to ask anyone for any documentation. We just know if they show up while we're serving, we know they are there to meet their basic need for food."

The program also serves more than meals. They partner with the Second Harvest Food Bank to host a food giveaway twice a month; the first Friday of the month at Loaves and Fishes and the third Friday at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on Nolensville Road. "That's all fresh foods," Overlock said. "There's a lot of food we give away on Fridays."

One of the reasons Loaves and Fishes started serving breakfast, Overlock explained, is to make it easier for representatives of several outreach agencies to find people who need help. Between breakfast and lunch, guests can talk with representatives of: Second Harvest, who will help them apply for food stamps; Neighborhood Health and Park Center, which help people find health care and mental health services; Operation Stand Down, which provides a variety of services to veterans; Open Table Nashville, which can help with several services including housing; and the Metro Health Department, trying to connect primarily with families and children.

‘The needs are different'

North Nashville Outreach also offers a variety of services, starting with a food pantry. "We use an empowering model," Haddock said. People who need food, go through the shelves picking out the food that they want. "It's almost like you're at the grocery store," Haddock said. "We found it goes further. If we give someone a can of corn and they don't like corn, we've wasted that food. People get what they need and they get what they want."

There is a limit on the amount of food a person can take, based on the size of their family.

People can also receive limited financial assistance to pay their rent, mortgage or utilities, Haddock said. People who receive financial assistance from North Nashville Outreach are required to take financial literacy classes offered at the McGruder Center, she explained.

The goal of the classes, which are also open to anyone interested, is to teach people budgeting skills, including how to save even on a limited income and how to prioritize your bills those months when you can't stretch your income to pay everything, Haddock said.

In a typical month, North Nashville Outreach provides food to about 70 people and financial assistance to 50 or 60 people, Haddock said. Clients can receive financial assistance once a year and food once every three months.

North Nashville Outreach serves residents in five zip codes, including North Nashville, Bordeaux, the areas around Metro Center, Jo Johnston Avenue and Tennessee State University, Haddock said.

"Most of the situations that we see are temporary," Haddock said. "A good number of them have jobs but they're underemployed. ... A lot of times, it's people in between jobs or who have an unstable work history."

Many of the clients are elderly, Haddock said. "They're on a fixed income. I tell people, use this as a supplemental income."

Gentrification of the North Nashville area is causing problems for many of her clients, Haddock said. "A lot of clients are on the brink of homelessness," she said. If they are renting, their landlord can sell the property to developers and give them only weeks to find a new place to live, and if they own their home, they could be feeling pressure to sell or feel they have to sell because they can no longer afford rising property taxes, Haddock explained.

"Rent is so expensive in Nashville they don't have anywhere to go," Haddock said. To find a place that is affordable, people often have to move out of Nashville to communities in the surrounding counties, she explained. "The pickings are slim."

Donna Rossi has run into that obstacle in her search for a new place to live. She applied for an apartment in Springfield. "They told me I was 57th on the waiting list. That's a two -year wait," Rossi said. "My God, what am I going to do. ... I want to stay in Nashville. I was born here. I've even thought if I could just afford a camper."

"The needs are different, so the way we serve people needs to be different," Haddock said. "It needs to be individualized because the needs are different from individual to individual."

Parishes reaching out

Parishes across the Diocese of Nashville are on the front lines of helping people in need. Among them are St. Rose of Lima Church in Murfreesboro, where parishioners run a food pantry, and at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Cookeville, which has the St. Thomas Outreach Program or STOP.

"The idea was stop evictions, stop power cutoffs, stop hunger," said Helen Marie Kulis, who chairs the program, which provides financial assistance to people who need help paying their rent or utility bills.

"We get between 30 and 50 calls a month depending on the season," Kulis said. The calls go up during January and February as utility bills rise, she explained.

STOP members meet every Tuesday morning to interview people looking for help to determine if and how the parish can assist them, Kulis said. They typically write 15 checks a month for an average of $75, she said.

The amount of help they can provide depends on the person's need, how many requests the parish has received, and how much money they have to help, Kulis said. "Since January we handed out about $15,000 so far."

All of STOP's money comes from donations from parishioners. The Knights of Columbus and the Daughters of Isabella hold fundraisers for STOP and other parishioners make regular donations, Kulis said.

STOP's clients are about evenly split among those who have a job and those who don't, Kulis said. "They are looking for a job, they're a minimum wage worker, they're people on disability who can't make ends meet."

Tammy Smith sees the same things among the people who come to St. Rose's food pantry looking for help. "Some are starting jobs and are trying to get on their feet," said Smith who leads the food pantry ministry. Others are underemployed and don't make enough to pay all their bills, she said. Some are homeless and others come to St. Rose because other agencies helping the poor in the community have lost their government funding, Smith added.

In the early 2000s, the parish collected donations of canned goods and Smith would take the food to the Rutherford County Food Bank.

But in September 2014, the parish opened its own food pantry, said Smith. Nearly all the food they hand out is donated by St. Rose parishioners or purchased with money donated by parishioners, she said. A local Publix donates bread and bakery items once a week.

"We also have people donate all sorts of things like diapers, formula, hygiene products," Smith said. "Anything we get in like that that we can offer people, then we do."

The food pantry is open 10 a.m. to noon on Tuesdays and Thursdays. "It does go up and down but we average about 20 to 25 families a week," Smith said. "First and foremost, it's for the St. Rose members and then we extend it to the community. ...

"We ask that they come no more than once a month, however, if there are special circumstances we work with that," Smith said.

For Smith, like most of the volunteers working with charities helping the poor, her work with the St. Rose food pantry is a way to put her faith into action.

"Everyone likes to be able to help people in some way," Smith said. "I feel like I'm at least doing a little something to help, to do my part."


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