During the holiday season, the front porch of the Catholic Worker House on Cassia Street in Redwood City is overflowing with donations. But the need for support doesn’t stop now that the holidays are over.
“It’s nonstop for us between Thanksgiving and the new year,” Catholic Worker House Executive Director Larry Purcell said. “Then, on Jan. 3 the phone stops, the mail stops and the visits stop. People are done, but poverty isn’t done.”
Purcell is a former priest who in 1974 helped to found the Catholic Worker House, which provides services for at-risk youths and others. The organization is based on the traditional Catholic worker model — nobody is paid to work and no one is charged for services. Purcell said his goal is to “try to make sense of everyday life and the Gospels.”
For four decades, the Purcell family and dedicated volunteers have worked to bridge the gap between supporters and those on the margins. One of those supporters is Bill Somerville, the founder and president of Philanthropic Ventures Foundation in Oakland, whom Purcell calls “a co-worker and partner.” The foundation and the Catholic Worker House work together to navigate funding issues and opportunities.
The Catholic Worker House currently provides 25 residents with food and shelter. Among its facilities, there are two houses for veterans, two for day laborers, two for women and children, and one house for at-risk teens. During the holidays, the Adopt-a-Family program has provided at least 50 local families with toys, gift cards, food and clothing.
“It’s pretty clear that love and kindness are the answer,” Purcell said. “Yet, the poor aren’t always treated kindly. They are often yelled at and brushed aside.”
When Purcell ran out of gift cards a few weeks ago, he handed out $10 bills instead. A few days later, while in line at the post office, he spotted a familiar face: a Catholic Worker House client who was sending her $10 bill to relatives in Mexico.
“We are out of touch as a society,” Purcell said. “Poverty on the Peninsula is not a once-a-year problem. The gap between the rich and poor in San Mateo County is expanding rapidly. ”
Volunteers are needed to tutor children after school and help with the Catholic Worker Language School. Donations of food, clothing, sleeping bags, school supplies, toiletries and money for scholarships are taken year-round.
“We always need help from professionals with specific skills — such as carpenters, mechanics, electricians, contractors, doctors and counselors,” Purcell added.
Hundreds of at-risk teenagers have lived at the Catholic Worker House since Purcell founded the Redwood City chapter decades ago.
“Many have come from jails, hospitals and families that are falling apart,” Purcell noted. “A few of our teenagers have arrived from other countries. We help at-risk teenagers who are dealing with serious issues — suicidal tendencies, cutting, eating disorders and addiction.”
Purcell said his work is rewarding because he is able to help people like 17-year-old Juan, who fled a violent home in Mexico. Purcell became his legal guardian and said the young man is looking forward to a bright future.
Another client, Susan, was in foster care for nine years and struggled with dealing with her complicated childhood. Yet, after living at the Catholic Worker House for a few years, she graduated from high school and community college, managed to save $20,000 by working at Safeway, and went on to work at Stanford Hospital.
“Sometimes, my job is like being a housewife and a Teamster for the poor,” Purcell said. “I recently asked one of our 15-year-old girls, ‘What’s the biggest difference between living here and where you lived before?’ She answered, ‘That’s easy — we never run out of food here.’ I love what I do. You really can’t do this job if you don’t love it.”