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Published: Sunday, 12/6/2009

Toledo area Catholic network offers help, hope

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

For 60-year-old James Johnson, having a cup of coffee and a doughnut each morning at the St. Francis de Sales Outreach Center is more than a break from the cold.

"It means survival, which is very important," Mr. Johnson, a disabled Vietnam veteran, said. "It keeps me grounded, and it keeps my faith in God alive."

While he rides his bicycle from his Fulton Street home to the church at Cherry and Superior streets downtown, many of the men who come to the center are homeless and walk there for coffee and to avail themselves of the other services offered - free clothing, emergency food bags, a weekly nurse's visit, bus tokens for doctor appointments, and, when there is money available, help getting birth certificates and state identification cards.

The center is part of a network of Catholic organizations that have found the need for food and other staples at an all-time high, while financial resources to provide those services are strained by the poor economy.

Suzie Stapleton, administrator at the Assumption Outreach Center, said a Toledo man recently came to her in need of beds for his nieces and nephews who were on a train to Toledo to live with him.

She called every agency and second-hand store she could think of, but no one had any beds. Then she "put the word out" to area Catholic parishes and in no time had more donated beds and bedding than she could imagine.

"If you present the need, people respond," said Ms. Stapleton, who oversees the center at the former St. Mary's Church on Page Street, which provides food, toiletries, and assistance to the poor in parts of central and North Toledo.

It's an experience she and others who help the city's poor are finding during these tough economic times: People may not be able to write a check, but they still want to help.

Deb Johnson bags food at the Assumption Outreach Center, which provides food, toiletries, and assistance at the former St. Mary's Church on Page Street. Deb Johnson bags food at the Assumption Outreach Center, which provides food, toiletries, and assistance at the former St. Mary's Church on Page Street.
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"We're not getting as much actual money, but we're getting it in other ways - in toiletries and other types of donations," Ms. Stapleton said.

Tom Carone, a deacon at the Historic Church of St. Patrick, which ministers to the poor in the downtown area, said parishioners continue to donate bags of groceries each week for the church's food pantry. They continue to volunteer at the Sunday soup kitchen the parish operates and generally help in whatever way they can.

"Even the fact that everybody's hurting, they find in their budgets enough to give to the church," he said, quickly adding, "As fast as it comes in, it goes out just that fast."

One man who came to the church door recently said he'd never asked for assistance, but he was out of work and his family was hungry. Mr. Carone talked to him about how to go about getting food stamps.

"They're embarrassed to do so and I say, 'You can't be embarrassed. That's the way it is right now,'•" he said.

With the economic downturn, Mr. Carone said he has seen more and more people seeking help for the first time.

"I've watched the people change," he said. "With the bad economy, we're getting a different group of people who are coming for help."

Rodney Fisher, 48, said he was in a training program at Goodwill Industries when he heard about the outreach center at St. Francis next door. Now he stops there for coffee in the morning. He also received one of the 150 Thanksgiving food boxes the center distributed.

"That really helps out," he said. "It can get pretty tough nowadays, trying to provide your basic necessities."

In emergency situations - and when they have the funds - the centers try to help people pay for prescriptions, utilities, or rent, but most say food remains the primary need.

Ms. Stapleton said Toledo-area Catholic parishes and schools conduct regular food drives to keep shelves stocked at the Assumption center. Individuals drop off boxes of food and supplies. Two out-of-state parishes provide financial support to the center, which gets 3,000 to 5,000 pounds of food a month from the Toledo Seagate Food Bank and at least 50 boxes of food weekly from the Toledo Northwestern Ohio Food Bank.

Ms. Stapleton said the Assumption center started out in 2005 helping 800 to 900 households but now serves more than 2,600.

"The need is just so great," she said. "Basically it's food, and we're finding that a lot of people just cannot make it through the month, and it's more and more."

At Christmastime, the center distributes turkeys and gifts, but not toys.

"We try to give things that are practical, every day - hats and gloves, blankets, toiletries, food," she said. "It's not toys and all that kind of stuff. It's clothing. It's things that they just can't take care of."

When the downtown St. Francis de Sales parish closed five years ago, Historic St. Patrick began to oversee and expand the outreach center at St. Francis.

Mr. Carone said that in addition to the 150 or so food boxes distributed at St. Francis for both Thanksgiving and Christmas, St. Patrick's gives out another 150 holiday food boxes along with a "care kit" with toiletries and a laundry basket filled by parishioners with household items people can't buy with food stamps.

At both centers, families must sign up for the boxes in October, and the 150 spots are quickly filled.

"There are more needy out there than we ever imagined," Ms. Stapleton said. "When they do government statistics on the poor, they're just counting the people in the system, but there are a lot of people who don't go through the system."

She said she considers helping the poor a response to her faith, a response to the mandate to care for those in need.

"The needs are endless, and there are days when I go home thinking, 'What are we going to do? What are we going to do? We need this. We need that,'•" Ms. Stapleton said.

"And God provides. Because the next day we'll get a phone call or somebody will come at the spur of the moment and say, 'Can you use this?' You just have to trust in the Lord to take care of them. My prayer is always 'Lord, I'll do the work. Just give me the goods to do it.'•"

Contact Jennifer Feehan at:

jfeehan@theblade.com

or 419-724-6129.



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