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Catonsville and Arbutus groups fill a need supplying meals at emergency shelter

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Preparing dinner for a family of four is no longer a simple decision for many these days, as what's on sale and the time available to prepare a meal are often among the determining factors for what goes on the table.

When the number of people taking their seats is more than 100, that challenge becomes even more difficult.

Members of several Catonsville and Arbutus churches and civic organizations in the area face that situation on a regular basis as they attempt to provide a nourishing meal for the 110 men at the West Side Emergency Men's Shelter on the campus of Spring Grove Hospital Center.

The Lazarus Caucus is the midst of coordinating the efforts of the groups that take turns providing the meals.

"We manage a calendar and pull the volunteers together," said Andrea Ratajczak, executive director of the Lazarus Caucus.

Catonsville resident Sue Medicus and Arbutus resident Ruth Ann Wickless are helping put together that schedule which includes approximately 30 groups.

Christian Temple on Edmondson Avenue in Catonsville, for example, supplies dinner every Tuesday. Catonsville Presbyterian takes the first and third Fridays. The Church of the Holy Apostles in Arbutus takes the fourth Thursday and St. Charles of Brazil, a small congregation that holds its Sunday morning services at Our Saviour Lutheran Church in Lansdowne, delivers food to the shelter on the third Tuesdays to be prepared for the next night's meal. Salem Lutheran Church in Catonsville supplies a Sunday evening meal and a Monday morning breakfast.

Other groups involved include Catholic Community at Relay, Arbutus United Methodist, Catonsville United Methodist, Epworth United Methodist, Dutton Overhill Gang, Emmanuel Lutheran, Westside Church of Christ, Moms on a Mission, Loverde Community Foundation, Temple Emmanuel and West Baltimore Methodist.

"If everybody takes a bite out the problem, you end up with a bigger solution," said Wickless, who has been coordinating the St. Charles effort since the church was founded approximately four years ago.

"So many groups are doing it, that's a positive thing," she said.

Her group usually includes her husband, Joe, and fellow regulars Biggs Harrison, Charlie and Patty Ernst and Sharon Glass aided by several others. They fix shepherd's pie with 15 pounds of ground beef, several boxes of instant potatoes and several large cans of green beans mixed together with cream of mushroom soup.

"One time, we tried to get somebody to tell us whether the men liked it or not," she said. "We never got a clear answer. But guys ought to be able to enjoy what they eat. If they wanted something else, I would want to know."

But having enough is usually a higher priority.

"I was talking to someone from St. Mark's (Catholic Church in Catonsville)," Ratajczak said. "It occurred to them that they were probably not providing enough (food) for 100 men. So they decided to embrace breakfast and lunch, because they could see there was a void there."

Ann Green, who coordinates the effort at Catonsville Presbyterian, said she has heard of groups such as Scout Troop 306, which meets at the church, and church member's ICU nurses' group also volunteer after they've learned of the ongoing need.

Accompanied by her husband, Peter, Green has been doing the shopping for Catonsville Presbyterian for nine years. In 2012, that meant shopping at Shoppers or the Jetro wholesale grocer on Annapolis Road to buy 430 pounds of meat, 590 pounds of vegetables and 600 pounds of fruit, among other items.

"I always tell people it's for the West Side Men's Shelter and people are very positive about it," she said on the reaction of others while she is standing in line.

She said it usually requires 16-18 pounds of chicken, for example, to produce the 10-12 casseroles of chicken and rice.

"It's not the meatiest, but it's adequate," she said. "When you're making a casserole for men, you want to have meat in it, not just pasta and tomato sauce."

Different groups within the church, such as the Presbyterian Women, the Mission Committee and several youth groups, augment the $125-$150 the church budgets for the feeding effort, she said.

She said she has noticed a change in the men who benefit from the meals.

"I have a son who is now 31," she said. "When I first started doing this, he was home from college. One night it was snowing, so he and my husband went down (to the shelter to drop off the food) so I wouldn't have to be driving with the roads slippery. He was rather quiet on the way back, and then said to my husband, 'Dad, there were guys my age there.' "

Ratajczak said the observation was accurate.

"There are a lot of young men, (age) 18-19-20, who graduated from high school. Mom and dad got divorced. Dad moved on. Mom's boyfriend doesn't want the son around, and soon the son is on the street," she said.

"I never knew someone who had lost their home before," she said. "Now, I can't believe the number of people I know who have lost their homes."

She said her group helps run a resource room at the shelter, where the men get bus tokens or help getting their birth certificate, for example, so they can get an ID.

"It's discouraging," Green said on the increase in recent years from the 40 men who ate the donated dinners several years ago. "You don't want to see people having to be there. But so far, we have been able to step up our commitment."

"The reality is, without the factors that brought these men to the shelter being addressed, there is a lot of recidivism," Wickless said.

She said one of the highlights for her group is hosting special events, such as a summer cookout, a monthly birthday party or December turkey dinner, during which the members interact with the men at the shelter.

"That stuff feeds their soul," she said.

This story has been updated.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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