Changing lives, one at a time

December 3, 2014

Fidel had worked in construction his entire life, but as he aged and his medical conditions progressed, his body could no longer handle the physical labor. He has arthritis that causes severe leg pain, and his diabetes advanced to the point that he lost sight in one eye.

“I just kept trying to survive,” Fidel said. But with no job and no family to turn to for support, he soon became homeless and began living in a shelter. “It was so bad to live there. The noise was so much that I couldn’t sleep at night. You wait in line every day and hope for a bed, or you sleep on the streets.”

During this time, Fidel ate lunch in Caritas’ Community Kitchen every day and said that was the only meal he ate many days.

After months living at the shelter, Fidel was referred to Caritas of Austin. “He was prepared and desperately wanted to be in stable housing,” his case manager remembers. “He had every single piece of paperwork he needed and was ready to do anything it took.”

Within two weeks of working with Caritas, his case manager was able to get him an apartment of his own. Initially, Fidel worked to apply for disability benefits because of his health conditions, but when he was denied, he knew he had to find employment.

Determined to regain his self-sufficiency, Fidel began working with the Caritas employment team to find a job. Within three months, he began working part-time at a local grocery store.

“Like everything, he was motivated to do it and he believed he could,” said his case manager. Fidel started out working 20 hours a week to see if he could handle being on his feet.  Over the past year, he has progressed to working full-time.

His Caritas case manager has supported Fidel through many other milestones as well, including helping him access both medical and mental health services. “I knew I needed to take care of myself,” he said. Fidel was experiencing severe depression when he began working with Caritas’ therapist. Two years later, his case manager says his progress is clear. “He has changed as a person. He is confident and at peace now.”

The two also worked together on things like setting up a bank account and starting a savings plan. His case manager even encouraged him to learn how to use a computer and communicate with his family through email. In recent months, Fidel saved up to visit his family for the first time in years.

He says that Caritas of Austin was so helpful because of all the support and resources they provided. “No other place has all of the help I needed.”

When he’s not working, Fidel’s favorite thing to do is walk down by the lake. He says it’s peaceful and it reminds him of his freedom now. “It’s a good feeling knowing I can do everything by myself.” 

Will you join us in changing lives like Fidel's by making a donation today?

Homelessness: The Common Thread

November 17, 2014

Hunger & Homelessness Awareness Week is November 15-23, and it is a great opportunity to raise awareness and understanding about these issues.  It should also spur our community to identify how each of us can contribute to alleviating poverty, hunger, and homelessness right here in Austin.

As Caritas of Austin has grown tremendously in the past 10 years, both in our breadth of services and in the scope of whom we serve, we consistently get asked: what does it all have in common? 

The common experience across every single person we serve is simple: homelessness.

At first glance, the various families and individuals we serve may appear to have little in common: individuals who have lived on the streets for years, families in crisis on the brink of eviction or living in their cars, veterans working to get back on their feet, and international refugees starting a new life in Austin. But upon further reflection, each person is on the spectrum of homelessness.

Homelessness happens for countless reasons, and each experience varies greatly. It is not simply the man or woman you see on the street corner (which actually accounts for less than 20% of overall homelessness).

Homeless happens to families who are living in poverty and are one lost job or medical emergency from being evicted. It happens to veterans who return home to find difficulty in transitioning to civilian life. And it happens to international refugees who have literally fled their home country due to war and persecution and arrive in Austin homeless, without any possessions except a suitcase.

You might also wonder what all of Caritas’ services have in common. We have a Community Kitchen serving lunch to over 300 people daily, a Pantry, an employment team working tirelessly to employ people, housing teams working with people to find stable housing they can afford, and an education program helping people learn to manage money, be a responsible tenant, and develop job readiness skills. The common thread: all are aimed at preventing and ending homelessness.

Every one of our relationship-based services is aimed at creating a turning point in people’s lives – away from crisis and homelessness. A stable home, a new job, a class on managing finances, or just a warm meal can be a turning point. Collectively, these comprehensive services - with social work professionals at the core - create a powerful foundation for people to change their life path toward self-sufficiency.

Homelessness is indeed the common experience of every person we serve, and self-sufficiency is the common goal that we work toward with everyone.

Will you join Caritas of Austin in our goal to make homelessness rare, short-term, and non-recurring in Austin? Make a donation, view our Wish List, or sign up to volunteer today!

 

A Young Family Rebuilds After Loss

October 27, 2014

One day LaRonda was a regular high school senior, and the next, she was the sole provider of her family and responsible for taking care of her younger brother, Randy, and sister, Patty. Two years ago, the kids’ mother died suddenly of a heart attack.

Not only were they devastated by the loss of their mom, but the three siblings had no stable support system during this overwhelming time. Because LaRonda was 18 years old and considered a legal adult, she was able to take guardianship of her siblings and prevent them from going into the foster care system. They bounced around between staying with family, at a youth shelter, and in an apartment.

“I didn’t know if I could graduate from high school,” said LaRonda. “I went from caring only about myself to putting my brother and sister first. I had to make sure the bills were paid.” LaRonda did graduate from high school and began working for a local school district.  “I had to be motivated and learn how to survive on my own.”

When their rent increased dramatically due to LaRonda’s increased income, they could no longer afford to stay in their apartment and were on the brink of eviction. LaRonda’s younger sister Patty was attending a local high school where Caritas of Austin has an onsite social worker who learned about the family’s situation. Our services focused on homelessness prevention were a fit for what LaRonda’s family needed.

We were able to pay for a hotel for the three siblings to prevent them from having to stay at a shelter while they worked to find stable housing. Within two weeks, an apartment was secured that LaRonda could afford with her monthly income. “It’s been amazing how fast Caritas has helped with everything.”

Her case manager’s support did not stop there. Caritas was able to help provide basic furniture for the family and give LaRonda guidance on connecting to important resources for her siblings. “I knew nothing about taking kids to the doctor or enrolling them in school. Other places I tried to get help, people just told me what I needed to do. Caritas actually helped me do all the things I needed to do,” said LaRonda.

The family’s resilience is remarkable. “Things were especially rough for Randy. He was too young to understand what was happening, but he is finally able to talk about it now,” LaRonda said. She proudly talked about how well Randy is doing in school.

Our support is especially significant to LaRonda because she remembers years ago when her mom received assistance from Caritas of Austin: “Caritas helped my mom a few years ago. It’s really cool how you work with each family’s individual situation.” LaRonda is working toward a promotion at work, and Patty will graduate from high school next year. She said her ultimate goal is to own a house of their own someday.

These accomplishments and goals would not be possible without your support.

Make a donation today to be a turning point on someone's path toward self-sufficiency.

 

Food Drive Challenge

October 16, 2014

As we approach Hunger & Homelessness Awareness Week (November 16-23), we are challenging you (yes, you!) to organize a food drive and help stock the Caritas Pantry. Every week, we distribute over

1,800 pounds of food to the families we serve. You can collect food items with friends, family, co-workers, and other groups. Big or small, all donations help! The majority of our Pantry items come from donations made by individuals and groups in our community.

Since you might not know much about the Caritas Pantry, we will let you hear from Irma, Caritas’ Pantry Aide. She is celebrating 20 years of working at Caritas of Austin this year, so there’s no better source of information.

What was the Pantry like when you started working at Caritas of Austin 20 years ago?

When I started, the Pantry was located next door in the Annex property. It was very small, maybe 8ft by 8ft. We had just three shelves, mainly corn and green beans.

How have things changed over the years?

The size of Pantry and the number of people we are serving has changed a lot. As Caritas serves more people overall, we see more families and individuals coming to the Pantry. Just in the last couple of years, we have gone from serving about 10 people per day to 20-25 people each day.

We also see people really wanting to make healthy eating choices. Whenever Caritas has them available, people really like fresh produce, dairy products, and meats.

What’s an average “day in the life” for you?

When I get here in the morning, I check the Pantry shelves to see what we have and make sure everything is stocked. At about 8:30am, our first clients start showing up. With 20-25 people served each day, that takes up most of my day. I also make take-home bags that our staff take to clients and bag rice and beans, if I have time.

What happens when someone comes in to get groceries from the Pantry?

To give each client a good shopping experience, we just have one person come through the Pantry at a time. And last year, we switched to a self-shopping model so people can pick out their own foods. For some, shopping only take a couple of minutes, but for others it takes much longer. Because we serve refugees from all over the world, we help educate them on food options they might not be familiar with.

How has switching to the self-shopping model been beneficial for the people we serve?

It’s completely different. When they hear they get to shop themselves, they are amazed. People are very grateful because it gives them more dignity. 

What Pantry items are most popular right now?

Canned tuna and salmon, eggs and milk, fresh meats, and rice.

What do you want the community to know?

Thank you for your donations. Lots of people just pull up and drop off donations and we don’t even know who they are. I want to invite people to come by and visit, so we can show you where your donations are going and how important they are.

I also want people to know there are lots of ways to help. We have churches that donate every month. We have restaurants and groceries stores that donate their extra food. And we have families that bring even just a bag of extra food they collected. The City of Austin and H-E-B also just donated reusable bags to us. It all helps so much.

Will you join us in fighting hunger by collecting food items for our Pantry? If so, please contact Grace Alrutz at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and she will help you get organized. You can also view our full Wish List HERE

 

National Volunteer Week

April 6, 2014

As we recognize National Volunteer Week (April 6-12), we want to say thank you to our volunteers who give of their time and talents to help Caritas of Austin carry out its mission. Last year, volunteers contributed an amazing 36,029 hours of service! Below are stories of Caritas volunteers who support various aspects of our operations. We hope they inspire you to consider new ways of getting involved in our work and mission. 

 

In her five years volunteering at Caritas, Anita has helped with just about everything: assisting staff with clerical work, setting up for special events, attending outreach fairs, helping with Turkey Trot registration, and serving in the Community Kitchen.

“The people that work here are awesome. Everyone is very enthusiastic and loves their work. Caritas gives a sense of caring and support to people who would otherwise not have a place to go. You show respect and dignity to individuals who are otherwise invisible. It’s a learning and growing experience - you will never come to Caritas and be disappointed.”

Eri learned about Caritas after participating in the TunderCloud Subs Turkey Trot and now volunteers with the Refugee Resettlement program. She assists case managers with administrative tasks, does grocery shopping and apartment setup for refugee families in advance of their arrival, and helps clients navigate their transition to life in Austin.

"I've learned refugees are no different from you or I despite their cultural differences. They all want a better life for themselves. Every person I’ve worked with is so grateful for what little help I can provide. It makes my day."

Cynthia began volunteering 12 years ago after learning about Caritas through her congregation, Emmaus Catholic Church. She volunteers  weekly in the Community Kitchen helping prepare and serve lunch to over 300 people daily. When asked what she likes most about volunteering, Cynthia said:

“Being able to give back to my community in some small way. Offering a smile to someone who otherwise may not see one that day. Being genuinely grateful that I can give back.”

Since 2007, Ed has helped pick up food donations from local businesses for the Caritas Pantry and Community Kitchen. He said he loves interacting with staff members as part of his volunteer experience. When asked what he would tell others about this unique opportunity to help, he said:

“That it's a great way to get involved, with flexibility in scheduling.”

David began volunteering in July 2013 because he liked the breadth of services Caritas provides and the various volunteer opportunities available. David is a Direct Service Volunteer and works with Caritas supportive housing clients and case managers to access needed resources and achieve goals of self-sufficiency.

“My volunteer training and experience have changed the way I think about poverty. I now know everyone has a  unique, complex story, and you cannot generalize people."

So, are you ready to get more involved? We need your help! Learn more about our volunteer opportunities HERE.

 

Hard Work Pays Off in Starting a New Life in Austin

June 2, 2014

Change is difficult for everyone, and starting a new life from scratch comes with many challenges. More than 1,000 refugees from over 30 countries do just that in Austin each year – start over after fleeing their home country due to religious or political persecution.

Born and raised in Iraq, Sezar worked as an interpreter for the United States military in his home country. This was a good career until the war began there. Sezar and his family were at risk because of his ties to the United States, and he said they feared for their lives every day. “Whenever I said goodbye to my family each morning on my way to work, I feared it would be the last time,” he said.

Sezar’s wife, Dalya, worked in the legal field and was in the process of getting her Masters degree when the war began. “It was hard to find any job when the war started,” she said. She got a job in media, but this was extremely dangerous as well. “You have to be careful because a lot of the media’s lives were in danger. I had many friends killed because of this.”

Sezar and Dalya were fortunate to remain safe, but opposition groups kidnapped and killed Sezar’s brother. Eventually the U.S. government determined that they needed to flee Iraq before they too were killed. In September 2009, Sezar got the call that his family would have to leave in three days. They had just 72 hours to sell their possessions, say their goodbyes, and gather what they could take with them on the plane. To further complicate things, Dalya was 8 months pregnant.

While Dalya and Sezar’s process was expedited due to their ties to the U.S. government, the majority of refugees wait in refugee camps in neighboring countries for years prior to being resettled. Regardless of their journey, all refugees experience significant challenges transitioning to a new country and culture very different from their own.

“When I arrived in the United States, I told myself that I would be willing to pick up trash for a job if it meant that my family was safe,” said Sezar, thinking about starting life in Austin. He said it was helpful for him to know that other refugees who were doctors and engineers also had to start over working low wage jobs. “I knew I could work hard and move up.”

Dalya and Sezar said they were amazed at all that Caritas helped with in their first months in Austin. “The classes taught us how to use the bus, shop for groceries, and open bank account. They were amazing.” Caritas Community Advocate volunteers also helped with transportation to and from appointments.

Sezar got his first job working at Target, and after several jobs over the past five years, he now has a great career in the oil industry. “Now I am living the dream. I have a good job, my family is safe, and my kids are going to good schools.”

Sezar and Dalya are happy to call Austin home. “People are so friendly here. I like the weather. There is a lot to do for families. I like everything except I-35!” said Sezar. Dalya added, “The diversity makes this city great. Everyone was very friendly to us from the start, and they didn’t look at me like I was different. This is our home now.” They said they miss their family and the food in Iraq, but not living in fear each day.

Looking back on their first months in the United States, they are grateful for all of the support they received to become self-sufficient. “Caritas helps guide people to a better life. They made a huge difference for me and my family. I want to help others because of the help I received,” said Sezar. Dalya said the support they received went beyond just resources.  “The people who supported us are like family,” she said. “They truly cared about us and our feelings throughout the whole process.”

To learn about how you can get more involved in supporting refugees in Austin, join us for our Serving the World at 611 Neches Street Open House on Thursday, June 12th from 11:30am-1:00pm. Lunch will be provided. RSVP HERE!