By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — How far can $25 with Catholic Charities go? How about saving a life.
Jarrod Sanderson, a Charities social worker, met “John” shortly after he was released from a psychiatric hospital, following a suicide attempt.
John told Sanderson that he once owned a business that earned him a six-figure income. But after a divorce, he sunk into alcoholism and was now homeless, living in his car.
Sanderson offered to get him into a substance abuse program, but John wasn’t quite ready.
“He was very open about it. He said if he got into it, he wouldn’t succeed,” Sanderson said.
So Sanderson did what he could for John at that moment. He dipped into the Catholic Charities Emergency Assistance Fund and gave John a $25 gas card, so at least he could stay warm that night as he slept in his car.
There was one condition.
“I made him promise that he would call me the next day, just to tell me he was OK,” Sanderson said.
John made that call. Then he began coming back to Catholic Charities seeking, not just help, but people who would listen to him without judging.
Within three weeks, he finally accepted the offer for substance abuse treatment.
“Three weeks later, he’s a completely different story,” Sanderson said.
John has relapsed twice, but has fought back each time because Sanderson was always a phone call away.
“He would call me every time he had a relapse or was in trouble. I knew he was getting better when those calls got less frequent,” Sanderson said.
Today, John has his own apartment, two part-time jobs, and a pet dog. He has even begun to rebuild a relationship with his ex-wife and his children.
And his recovery started with a $25 gas card.
That’s the power of the Catholic Charities Emergency Assistance Fund. Parishes around the diocese will take up a special collection to fund the resources that help Catholic Charities provide that help someone without help desperately needs, or more important, the hope for someone without hope.
The special collection is taken up every year on the second weekend of Lent, but this year’s collection is especially critical.
For the last several years, the collection has been spiraling down, with last year’s collection of nearly $80,000 about half of what the collection once brought in.
“We know people are asked to give to a lot of different things,” said Carrie Pirotte of Catholic Charities. “But sometimes you have to give a little beyond what is comfortable to make a difference. That can be easier if you realize that somebody really needs it.”
Max was a homeless man, suffering from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and living on the streets of Stockton, Calif.
He got word that his grandmother had died in Kentucky. Max went to a social service agency in Stockton who bought him a bus ticket to Kentucky.
As he slept at the Greyhound terminal in Kansas City between bus connections, his backpack with his ticket in it was stolen.
When Lisa Tulp, Charities’ communications wizard, saw him that morning on the steps of the Catholic Charities building at 9th Street and Main, Max was crying, afraid to come in.
She took him to Sanderson.
“He was all over the place. He was hitting all those indicators of self-harm: ‘I’m a burden to everyone, I might as well just die,’” Sanderson recalled.
“I told him right off, ‘We’ll find a way to get you to Kentucky,’” Sanderson said.
For the next six hours, Sanderson hit the phones. He tried working his way up the food chain of Greyhound, until he finally found someone who told him that the only way Greyhound could issue him a new ticket was if Max’s name was in their system for the purchase of the stolen ticket.
No such luck. The ticket was in the name of the social service agency that bought it.
Sanderson couldn’t simply give Max the $180 he needed for a new ticket. “We get so many requests for bus tickets that if we paid for them all, we’d be out of money in no time,” he said.
Charities will help, however, but at a $100 limit out of the Catholic Charities Emergency Assistance Fund.
So Sanderson made some more calls, and contacted Max’s family in Kentucky. They agreed to split the cost of that ticket, and just on that promise, Sanderson was able to hand him a new bus ticket by the middle of the afternoon.
Max left Catholic Charities the same way he entered — in tears, but this time, tears of joy.
“He had gone from the lowest point, stuck in a city where no one knew him, to meeting people who were going out of their way to be kind to him,” Sanderson said.
Some of those people worked at Mildred’s Café, near Catholic Charities and a favorite lunch hangout for Charities employees. That’s because the staff at Mildred’s is on the same page as Catholic Charities — they meet everyone as if they were Christ himself.
Sanderson knew Max must be hungry, so he offered to take him to lunch. Max was a bit embarrassed because he hadn’t showered in days.
“They were so nice to him at Mildred’s. They welcomed him from the moment he walked in,” Sanderson said. “When we got back from lunch, he was a different person.”
Max had hope.
That’s really the “product” that Catholic Charities “sells.”
And that hope is so contagious that the people who work at Catholic Charities get a new dose of it every day as they are constantly reminded that the people who are no better than anyone else, including themselves.
They are just people who have hit one of life’s walls and need someone’s help to recover. And sometimes, that someone is Catholic Charities.
“I hope that if I do find myself in that situation, there would be someone who would listen,” Sanderson said. “I realize that what is separating the person I am listening to from being on my side of the table is happenstance, and I’ve been lucky enough not to have that catastrophic event hit me.”
Sanderson, as will all Charities employees, says he gets more than he gives to his clients.
“Seeing stories like (John and Max) makes this easy to do,” he said. “They want the same things everybody wants. You never really know how much you are giving somebody just by being nice to them.”
Pirotte said the Catholic Charities Emergency Assistance Fund is also shared with parish emergency assistance centers and food pantries to provide that measure of hope through food, rent and utility assistance, and even a bus pass to find a job and get to work.
With more, Charities can do even more, she said.
“There are people every day that we can’t help because the funds aren’t there, and we used to be able to give more money to parishes,” she said.
“The need is great, especially in the winter with utility assistance,” Pirotte said. “But every year, that fund runs dry for everyone.”
Pirotte said that along with hope, Catholic Charities “sells” dignity, and seeing the reaction from people who are reminded that they are children of God inspires her.
“I would rather be doing this than anything else, absolutely,” she said. But she knows that she, and her Catholic Charities co-workers, are only the workers, not the true giver.
“You can’t out give the Giver,” Pirotte said. “God will not be outdone in generosity. It’s amazing how much he gives back in return.”