Social worker Chris Muldowney and film professor Christopher Llewellyn Reed have found a way to translate their love of movies into, among other things, groceries, fire insurance, hearing aids, a mattress, a new window, the vet bill for a beloved cat and flowers for a 100th birthday.
Their monthly donation-only film series in Baltimore has generated more than $35,000 since 2005 to help needy seniors who might otherwise wait two years for an official helping hand.
Muldowney manages elder case workers for Family and Children's Services of Central Maryland, a private nonprofit that has, since 1849, helped needy families, children and seniors. Her workday often consists of visiting seniors and documenting their needs, knowing it could be months or years before there is money to help them.
The agency's "Adopt A Senior" program produces a spike in giving at Christmastime, but it also illustrates just how great the need is during the other 11 months of the year.
So when the second of a charming pair of sisters who had been clients died and left the agency a modest $600, Muldowney tried to think of a way to make it last.
"Miss Anne died on Christmas Eve, and I went out on Christmas Day to be with Miss Eleanor," Muldowney says of the Donovan sisters, who lived in a small apartment near the Johns Hopkins University campus until Eleanor Donovan died in 2004.
"She must have remembered that because when she died she asked her church to make sure the money got to me."
Among the items the sisters left behind was an autographed photo of silent movie star Ramon Novarro.
"I thought that they must have loved movies," said Muldowney, and she thought that a film series might be a way to honor their gift and multiply those dollars. She named it the Donovan Fund in the sisters' memory.
"Most of the movies are mine, or we rent them," she said. "We don't have any rights or a license or anything, so all we do is ask for a donation."
The series started in 2005, showing films every month in a makeshift screening room on Harford Road. About a year later Reed arrived as a film professor at Villa Julie College, now Stevenson University. A friend put the two of them together, and now Reed conducts a discussion after each movie.
"People come for Chris," said Muldowney. "He has a following. He brings energy and a level of understanding. Otherwise they could just watch the movie themselves."
"The Donovan Fund is why I do it," said Reed, who is now chair of the film and video department at Stevenson. "On weekends, I don't necessarily feel like doing something that I do every day. But this is a relatively easy way to do something in this life that has a higher purpose."
The films are shown above the Chop Shop in the 4000 block of Harford Road, with a seating capacity of about 20. The suggested donation is $10. But the number of attendees is dwindling and so is the money collected, and the future of the film series is in doubt.
Muldowney understands. People are working harder, their weekends are more precious and they fill up fast.
"Sometimes there are as few as six people," said Muldowney. "And sometimes, we have to turn people away and we make a couple of hundred dollars, and that's why I keep plugging."
Presently, the Donovan Fund is chiseling away at a $4,000 bill to provide heat for an elderly woman in Canton whose house has none. The house has to be rewired, to boot. The financial help has allowed her to take on a project that would otherwise be impossibly expensive, even with the donations of a contractor.
"It has been a really positive experience," said Muldowney.
January is the birth month of Cary Grant, and Muldowney and Reed have chosen to screen the 1944 classic "Arsenic and Old Lace," directed by Frank Capra, next Saturday at 7 p.m. Reed is already thinking about the discussion he will lead and the film lore he will share.
"There is this wonderful scene where Cary Grant is mugging and carrying on, doing a kind of charades. … And that's all I am going to say right now."
The Donovan Fund Film Series continues at 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 21, with a screening of "Arsenic and Old Lace," directed by Frank Capra and starring Cary Grant. It will be held above the Chop Shop, 4321 Harford Road. Suggested donation is $10. A discussion with Stevenson University film department chair Christopher Llewellyn Reed will follow the screening. For a listing of future movies, visit fcsmd.org/events/donovan.htm. Contributions to the Donovan Fund can be mailed to: Donovan Fund, c/o Chris Muldowney, Family and Children's Services of Central Maryland, 4623 Falls Road, Baltimore 21209. The fund benefits seniors in Baltimore City.