Guest Insights | 50 Years — A Look Back: The Impact of Service

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  By Rochelle  Schlortt / SPECIAL TO THE HERALD, This article is reprinted from the Colorado Catholic Herald – August 3, 2018

COLORADO SPRINGS. Most of the time, we don’t think about how charity work impacts people other than those receiving the charity.  But for many — staff, volunteers, and donors, being involved in a meaningful charity can impact, and sometimes change the course of their lives.

Here are some stories from people who have been associated with Catholic Charities over the years that describe the impact charity work made on their lives:

• Renny Fagan joined the Catholic Charities board of directors in 1981 when he moved back to Colorado Springs after finishing law school. It was his first opportunity to serve on a nonprofit board. During that time, he was not only involved in governance but also worked closely with the programs.  Fagan says, “I remember spending a night volunteering at Marian House with a CCS staff member to provide a place for homeless men to sleep. The experience created empathy in me for homeless men and a small understanding of the difficulties and challenges of being homeless, as well as the challenges of providers servicing them. I was motivated to help solve problems and help others. I left my job at the law firm. Being in my late twenties at the time, I decided to start on a public service path by seeking to serve in the legislature as one means of solving problems through the systems approach of the government.  I eventually moved to the nonprofit sector, and tremendously appreciate the direct service work that many nonprofit professionals do every day to help so many Coloradans.”  Fagan is currently the CEO of the Colorado Nonprofit Association.

• Gabe Cobos is a Catholic Charities staff member working with English as a Second Language classes.  He says, “For me, it is spiritually, mentally, and emotionally uplifting to see people doing good deeds for others in need.  I feel like when I do or see others doing charitable work, it gives me energy, hope, and happy feelings about humanity and this life. We are spreading a good seed that will encourage the people we help, to one day help others and spread some love to this world that desperately needs it.”

• Nod Mitchell, a member of First Presbyterian Church, has volunteered at Marian House for more than 30 years, beginning in about 1988.  She said, “Thirty years ago, a member of First Pres invited me to volunteer at the soup kitchen.  So, I came down and volunteered, and that day I buttered bread.  When I left, I knew this is where I was going to be every Tuesday.”  Today, Mitchell is one of the Tuesday volunteer leads for the First Pres group at the soup kitchen.  She has also served on the Catholic Charities Board of Directors. She has been recognized for her volunteer service by Catholic Charities USA as a finalist for Volunteer of the Year in 2015.

• Billy Burlingame drives the Catholic Charities truck to pick up donations and also does some warehouse duties.  He says, “Working at Catholic Charities has been a blessing to me, seeing exactly how the entire system works in taking care of the homeless.  Just seeing all the different avenues and services that are provided is awesome. As a kid, my family became homeless a few times. We stayed at the Red Cross shelter every time.  They drove us down to the soup kitchen back when it was the little yellow house, then drove us back to the shelter afterward.  As a kid, you don’t see or really understand the behind-the-scenes of everything that goes on to make the place run 24/7.  We were taken care of and fed and had our needs met as much as possible.  Now I’m on the other end helping to give back a little.  Although I’m paid for my position, it’s still gratifying to know that people depend on me to pick up the food and supplies needed to be able to feed them and care for them. It feels almost like it’s full circle. I am grateful that I can have the opportunity to show my kids where I work and that everyone on this earth is one of God’s children — that we are no better than anyone else, and at any moment in life, anything can happen and we can be one of the people standing in line at the Marian House, waiting for a hot meal.  I am thankful.”

• Frank Mora, who passed away several years ago, was the Volunteer Manager at Marian House soup kitchen for over ten years — as a volunteer. He said, “I passed by the Marian House on my way to Mass each day at St. Mary’s Cathedral. One day, I stopped in, just to see what it was all about, and I never left.” Nuns raised Frank in a Catholic orphanage. “I feel like I owe something back,” he said. “That’s why I do it, I enjoy it, and I just don’t feel like I can leave.  They need help at Catholic Charities. There are just so many people in need, I would feel uncomfortable knowing that I wasn’t here helping.”  Frank was a CCUSA Volunteer of the Year finalist in 2007.

• Jeff Zearfoss, a volunteer since 2005, began his work with Catholic Charites as a soup kitchen volunteer preparing meals.  That evolved into becoming the head chef every Wednesday.  He and his wife then created a catering business with a social enterprise philosophy which has helped numerous nonprofits around town.  During the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest wildfires, Zearfoss helped Catholic Charities Marian House lead the disaster response effort to get meals to evacuees and first responders.  He has worked with clients to help them gain culinary skills to reenter the workforce and has collaborated with Catholic Charities on many social enterprise projects. Today, Zearfoss has multiple businesses but continues to find the time to volunteer.  He was named the Catholic Charities USA Volunteer of the Year for 2018.

 Mary Stegner has been associated with Catholic Charities and the Diocese of Colorado Springs for almost 30 years.  Stegner began as a bookkeeper for Catholic Charities in 1990 and then expanded into several roles within the agency. These included working with Partners in Housing when it was incorporated by Catholic Charities as a separate corporation in 1991.  Stegner says, “Working with the many programs of Catholic Charities and Partners in Housing has provided me with a sense of community and pride for all the wonderful service given to people in need in so many ways.”   Since January 2012, Stegner has been the Executive Director of Partners in Housing, working to end homelessness for families in crisis.  She has been a member of the Pikes Peak Continuum of Care Governing Board, is on a Domestic Violence Task Force, and volunteers with several other community groups. She said, “Seeing the transformation in families with support from our related agencies is the motivation for the work we all do!”

• Bobbi Almeida says, “I will tell you that my volunteering with Marian House made an impact on my life that I never imagined possible.  I volunteered periodically, but in October 2015, I found myself in a major depression.  The solution for me was to volunteer on my days off.  I started doing two days a week and continued to do that until February 2018 when I became a security officer at Marian House.  Volunteering allowed me to connect with others and for the moment, forget the worries of my world.  I became very close to the staff and even some of the clients.  I soon found myself with a whole new family, and although the depression hits from time to time, I have found where I belong.  I owe it all to the Marian House.”

• Cyndy Jones is a counselor with Catholic Charities.  She says, “I always have the hope that my work will in some way have a positive impact on my clients. Sometimes I see it, but many times I don’t. What I know for certain is the positive impact my work with clients has on me. I learn from my clients all the time, and it’s one of the true rewards of what I do. When people are willing to be vulnerable, open, and visible, it’s a gift to themselves and certainly to the therapist. It makes therapy valuable because it’s a shared experience. How does one sit with someone in pain, someone feeling lonely or scared or defeated, and not have empathy and not reflect their humanness? And in sitting with, and holding someone else’s emotional vulnerabilities, I learn to sit with and hold my own. And every time, over and over, I know with certainty that we are all the same in a spiritual sense, which is all that really matters. This is the foundation of trust that I build on with my clients, and it is also the foundation of my learning from them.

Working at Catholic Charities has been a blessing for me.  It has taught me how to better walk in another person’s shoes — to learn about the history of the person with whom I am working so that I can understand their motivations. It has also taught me not to assume that my goals for them are the same as theirs.  If I truly want to treat everyone with respect, I need first to understand what they hope to achieve and not just assume that I already know.”

• Betsy Finley has worked at Catholic Charities since 2005.  She says, “Before I started working at CC, I was very closed-minded about poverty.  I felt many chose to be homeless, and those who didn’t made poor choices that put them there. Regardless of how they got there, it was my opinion that they weren’t going to get help from me. And when CC hired me, it was just a job, not a source for helping people.  That all ended when I helped serve the daily meal at the Marian House Soup Kitchen after a volunteer group didn’t show up. I was astounded that there were families with kids in line and people in business suits. When the meal service ended, I asked a co-worker about those families and business people.  She told me that the percentage of homeless was quite low and that most of the people utilizing the MHSK for their noon meal were working poor. This one meal a day helped them defray grocery costs which ultimately helped them pay their rent, utilities, school fees, etc.  That was the day I started to see the world through different eyes.  I no longer saw people as being less than me but started to see them as Jesus wants us to see them. My whole outlook on politics changed as well as how I lived my life.  But I still didn’t see my actual position at CC as one that impacted our clients.

I work in the Development Department, and I mostly handle incoming donations. But a few years ago, when I was helping the finance department by paying bills, I was told by one of our outreach employees that one of their clients wanted to thank me for saving them from becoming homeless.  Confused as to how I did that, my co-worker told me that my efforts to quickly get a rent check cut and signed kept this person in their apartment. It was at that moment that I realized that we touch people’s lives daily, and we truly are unaware, most of the time, of how our actions affect others. I made a pact with myself that day to try to judge people less and be as helpful as I can.  I’m still a work in progress, but I’ve come a long way from those days of thinking the poor choose to be poor.”

Rochelle Schlortt is the Chief Communications Officer for Catholic Charities of Central Colorado.

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