A Dream Team for City's Poor

MEDFORD, N.J. — A bathroom renovation for an elderly woman. Clothes and formula for a new mother. They are remarkable stories of how modern-day Catholics help others every day. But they were made possible by an event 12 years ago.

A simple food drive on Columbus Day weekend 1992 did more than feed the poor. From it, two local chapters of long-established Catholic organizations formed a long-lasting partnership in Medford, N.J.

Those organizations were the Knights of Columbus, which conducted the drive, and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

“The relationship between the two organizations has just grown and grown” in the last 12 years, noted Warren Murray, a Knight of Columbus who was chairman of the original event. He said his St. Mary of the Lakes Council was responding to the Knights Supreme Council's call to hold a food drive that year to mark the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ landing in America.

The collection turned out to be the ticket to supplement the Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners St. Vincent de Paul provided to 450 needy people that year. Since then, this annual “hunger harvest” collection hasn't stopped.

After last October's drive, “we had St. Vincent's literally bursting at the seams,” said the council's current Grand Knight, Jack Archible. “There was no room left in the pantry and the society had to actually store the food in trailers.”

The partnership in this town near Philadelphia quickly turned to year-round help, including the Knights delivering food to the needy throughout the year.

One family especially affected Murray. A hardworking father and mother had jobs but lost everything after an unscrupulous person duped them into believing they were buying a house instead of merely renting. Murray found them forced to live with their three children — two in high school and one severely handicapped — in a cheap hotel in a drug-infested area.

“Imagine five people living in a hotel room with curtains hanging across a rod for some privacy,” Murray said. On their own the Knights collected money from the council members to give the family extra financial help to pay their bills.

Murray's wife, Kay, a 15-year worker with St. Vincent de Paul, also stressed the benefit of deliveries to “those who are disabled, mentally challenged but [who] live alone.”

With the food they receive but couldn't otherwise afford, “these mentally challenged people get the opportunity to invite someone to their home for Thanksgiving or to bring food to a family member's home, which makes them feel good about themselves,” she said. “The help has a way of expanding itself.”

Wheels for Work

Simultaneously, the Knights-St. Vincent's partnership put cars donated to the society into running condition at nominal costs, then gave them to poor workers in dire need of one.

“To be able to give one of these poor families a car” makes an immeasurable impact, according to Archible. He was particularly happy for one woman who held down two jobs to support her three children but had to rely on buses.

“This car cut down three hours in traveling time each day for her,” Archible explained. The change it made in her family's life “was tremendous.”

For some, the car was the “only way they could keep their jobs,” said Joseph Becker, the Knight formerly in charge of the program. He explained other pressing needs the partnership addresses, such as refurbishing Holy Name Convent in Camden, N.J.

On one home visit, Becker discovered an 87-year-old woman who couldn't climb stairs to her second-floor bathroom. She could only reach a tiny, badly deteriorated first-floor powder room.

Last July, Knights put in a new downstairs bathroom “with a sit-down shower, new floor and ceiling,” Becker said.

Archible saw the bath project as “the perfect situation.”

“Here's an elderly woman who didn't have two cents to put together, but whatever she did have she sent to St. Vincent's on a monthly basis,” he said. “This woman has no other family. I don't know what she would have done without St. Vincent de Paul and the Knights working together.”

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Medford paid for the materials, according to its president, Nancy Sanson. Whatever the job, “you can count on” the Knights, she added. “If they say they'll do something, they will do it.”

Sandy Meyers is certainly grateful for the help. “It made a difference in my son's life,” she said. “We had nothing. The Knights helped me because I chose to have my son Brandon after doctors told me to consider aborting him. [The Knights] were always there for me when I decided to keep Brandon.” There was help with formula, food and other things for the baby.

The doctors were pressuring her to have an abortion because they thought something was wrong with the baby. Although under intense pressure, she wasn't leaning in that direction.

One night she woke up screaming because of a vivid dream in which she had had the abortion. And immediately after, she said, Jesus stepped out from behind a screen and said very clearly to her, “I want you to know you just killed a perfectly healthy child.” That moment Meyers solidified her decision to have the baby.

Meyers, who is not Catholic, said the Knights and St. Vincent de Paul group also helped her out spiritually.

“The guys coming with the diapers and formula were always kind and happy and didn't look down on me,” she said. “Everyone at St. Vincent's always prayed and let me know God was looking out for me, which I absolutely believed because I never would have succeeded as much as I have.”

Today, Meyers is back on her feet, with a good job and the sole support of her three children.

Religious affiliation is an issue that gives many in social-justice programs difficulty. The New York Times recently reported that the Salvation Army of Greater New York has begun an effort to get back to its religious mission.

The New York division's new leaders, the Times said, have reminded employees who deal with children that they must promise to follow the organization's religious mission in working with them. Much of the Army's work involves service to the poor, and the New York division receives $70 million in state and city funds for its programs.

The article pointed out that Catholic Charities and other religious organizations that receive public aid to carry out services to the needy said they do not require social-service employees to reveal religious affiliations or commit themselves to a religious mission.

Family to Family

The Knights-St. Vincent de Paul collaboration facilitates something that has always been a characteristic of Christian charity: families helping families.

All three of Archible's sons have collected and delivered food since 1993. “It's brought a lot of reality into their lives,” he noted. They saw that “not everybody has a hot meal, a clean house.”

His oldest, a dental student with little free time, continues to volunteer. “Even his girlfriend begged to get involved,” Archible said.

Murray recruits lots of help for the annual drive from youngsters in his parish's confirmation classes, who must do 20 hours of community service. The kids obviously inspire the public.

“The stores and hours where the children are collecting are the most productive ones,” Murray said.

Father Richard Vila of St. Mary of the Lakes Church finds the children realize how blessed they are. Because Medford is a somewhat affluent area, “it really opens up their eyes to see how other people live,” he said. “Not everyone has a nice warm house and all the luxuries that all the people here have. One of the Knights told me how his sons would come back crying because they were so deeply moved when they saw these houses.”

The impact of this partnership “also allows people to see the Church at work, helping whoever is in need,” Father Vila said. “You realize these are also God's children who are not as blessed and gifted at those here. These partners are “consumed in others, not consumed in themselves. I see people who are very selfless.”

As Archible learned, “It's more rewarding for the people bringing food than it is for those getting it.”

Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.