Dan Burke is an award-winning author, writer, and speaker on Catholic spirituality. He has written and/or edited nine books on faithful Catholic spirituality and is the Executive Director and writer for EWTN’s National Catholic Register. Dan is the president of the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, and the creator of Divine Intimacy Radio and SpiritualDirection.com.
How often do you serve the poor and disenfranchised strangers and neighbors in your life with a smile, a laugh, a sharing of joy? When was the last time you showed up at a food pantry or pregnancy center humming a tune, with a sense of joy and anticipation for the tasks that lay ahead?
Pope Francis has repeatedly encouraged us to help the poor, and it hasn't taken long for us to get the distinct impression that he enjoys it.
He's not the only one. The staff of volunteers who make possible the miracles of Martha's Village & Kitchen in Indio, Calif., are not just posing for smiles in the pictures on their website (www.MarthasVillage.org). As you talk with them and read about the work they do, you cannot help but feel the joy they have in the help they give.
Their website states their purpose clearly:
"Our program goes beyond shelter and the hundreds of thousands of meals we serve every year. Our clients are able to regain their self-sufficiency through our transformational services that include emergency and transitional housing for singles and families, job skills, career counseling, case management, vocational and education services, health and counseling services, licensed child care, and after-school programs for children. Martha’s Village is one of the largest providers of homeless services in the Coachella Valley and has helped thousands of our neighbors in need regain their lives and become independent, productive citizens."
Throughout the website, you'll find pictures of people grinning ear-to-ear, and you may even find yourself wanting to join in the fun of this volunteer corps.
But how can this be fun? Aren't they working with people who are low on their luck, with lives that are broken — people who are barely getting by, desperate for help?
Well, maybe the secret of this happiness is that the purpose of Martha's Village isn't just to give people “stuff” to help them. No, they have taken the mandate to "teach a man to fish" to a level that's inspirational and educational for the rest of us. They aren't just bringing in those who need help — singles and families, addicts and homeless. They're not even just equipping these people for eventual self-sufficiency so they can get out and get on with their lives. Instead, they make it their quest to address root issues and speak the language of the people they serve.
Did you notice that they refer to their clients as neighbors? Dignity is a given. You're not a "poor helpless idiot" when you arrive at Martha's Village, and you're not just a "recipient," either. You are a neighbor. You are part of the community. You are both part of the solution and part of the future.
Bill and Mary Ann DeMucci have been involved with Martha's Village for 10 years. They share, "We visited the Village and saw firsthand how the programs at Martha's really changed people's lives, broke the cycle of homelessness, made people productive citizens and gave them back their dignity."
Bill continues, "I have seen numerous people who come to us either totally broken or close to the bottom but realized that they needed to change their lives, and Martha’s provided all the tools necessary for them to do it." He cites the programs as being life-changing, but he also points out that regaining their dignity is an important part of the process for the neighbors who come to Martha's Village.
Bill recently served as interim CEO for two years. In that time, he got an up-close look at the effectiveness of this organization and its approach to bringing about real, lasting change.
He was speaking with one resident and asked her what Martha's does to change people's lives. She looked at him and frankly replied, "Nothing." He was a bit surprised, but the resident continued, explaining that Martha's Village provides the tools, but the individuals must decide to use the tools to change their own lives.
DeMucci said his eyes were opened after that conversation. "People need the chance and tools to change, but they need to be the ones who make up their minds to do it. Those who do have about a 90% chance of success if they stick to it."
The list of successes at Martha’s Village is overwhelming. They didn't just identify the need in the Coachella Valley for a comprehensive service center for the homeless and impoverished. They didn't just start collecting donations and organizing volunteers. Instead, they structured programs and services professionally and never lost sight of the fact that the people they are serving — their neighbors — are human beings worthy of dignity and respect.
According to their website, 92% of the families served at Martha's Village move from their transitional housing program to permanent and stable housing. Their two-week motivational program, Challenge to Change, is a required program that inspires neighbors to take control of their lives. And their "one-stop-shopping" approach to assistance includes all the programs and services neighbors need to effect true change in their lives.
For more information about Martha's Village, visit their website at MarthasVillage.org or call 760-347-4741. Most importantly, please pray for the important work they are doing to help God’s people know their own dignity and live out the plan he has designed for each of them.