With 'Christmas in July,' Catonsville nonprofit reminds community that 'hunger knows no season'

When school is out and students aren’t putting in volunteer hours, local nonprofits can struggle with securing donations and helping hands. The downturn is familiar at Catonsville Emergency Assistance (CEA), a nonprofit that offers emergency food, eviction prevention and utility cutoff intervention services in Catonsville.

“Hunger knows no season,” said Bonnie Harry, executive director of the CEA. The group and its clients still need help during summer months.

So, to raise money and awareness, the CEA is celebrating a “Christmas in July” donation drive, which kicked off with a tree lighting the night of July 25 and will end on July 31 — purposefully scheduled to mimic the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

Midway through, the organization is hosting an open house on Saturday, July 28, in its offices at 25 Bloomsbury Ave.

From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. that day, the community is invited to visit the CEA building for a tour, to donate food and to enjoy light refreshments, including lemonade, candy canes and Christmas cookies, Harry said.

About three dozen people, include state delegates Clarence Lam and Terri Hill, turned out for the tree lighting, braving heavy rains.

“As far as we’re concerned the kickoff was a real success,” Harry said. The organization plans to make a summer campaign drive an annual event, she said.

Harry, 70, has worked in health care for more than 30 years and is a registered nurse. She said advocating for needy people is “kind of [her] niche.” The Halethorpe resident said she’s glad to be able to work in Catonsville.

“The same problems of homelessness, not having a job or not having a job that pays enough, or not having a family unit, or not having enough education, all of those things will be in any ZIP code,” Harry said.

The organization relies on volunteer time and labor, Harry said. The “backbone” of CEA’s work has long been volunteers from local churches, according to the organization’s website.

Patti Palattella, from St. Mark Church, a Catholic parish at 30 Melvin Ave., said she’s been a volunteer with CEA for about eight years.

“I just feel like you need to volunteer whatever way you can to make your community a better place,” Palattella said. “Every little bit matters … I think if more people were able to [volunteer], things might be a little bit better.”

Palattella, who said she works with both high school students and Christian education students looking for volunteer hours, is among 40 regular volunteers. “The community, I think, has been very supportive of the organization and the different churches are always having fundraisers,” she said.

The Rev. David Asendorf, pastor of Salem Lutheran Church at 905 Frederick Road and president of CEA’s board, said his congregation has been working with CEA since the nonprofit was founded in the 1980s.

Alice March founded the organization in her basement with a group of friends in 1984, and “pretty quickly the churches signed on to help support her,” Asendorf said.

Salem Lutheran Church brings food donations to CEA about once a week. Asendorf also said the church keeps some food on-site to feed the hungry.

For him, Asendorf said spirituality was the “underpinning” of why he volunteers with CEA.

“Jesus said in the feeding of the 5,000 in The Gospel of Mark, you feed [the needy],” he said.

Not counting regular donors, like local churches including St. Mark, Catonsville United Methodist Church and Salem Lutheran Church, between eight and 15 donors typically drop off food with CEA each week, Harry said adding that about 99 percent of the organization’s revenue comes from donors.

”I’ve never been with an organization that had endless pockets,” she said. “I’ve always found it to be a wonderful challenge to have to look for the resources and ways to meet these people’s needs.”

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