Twenty-five years ago the pastor of a Bolton Hill church tapped Sharon Krieger on the shoulder and said, "You need to be doing something."
What she did was create a personalized social service organization known as the Samaritan Community where the upheavals of Baltimore living get a warm, sympathetic and knowledgeable ear.
As a counselor, she is self-taught. Her philosophy is simple: "I want everyone we work with to know that they are loved."
In the early 1980s, the Rev. Lyman "Barney" Farnham, her pastor, offered her an outreach ministry role. "I thought about it for a week and took the job with no regrets," she said of her calling. "I get so much satisfaction in return for what happens here, it erases any day-to-day discomfort."
Asked to define what her group does, she said, "The person who walks in the door is the program." She added, "Our goal is to meet the person where they are."
People she has helped navigate a crisis stop by the center to thank her years later and to let her know how well they are doing.
The Samaritan Community operates from the basement of a stone Gothic Revival Episcopal church in the heart of Bolton Hill. Its red door is down a little alleyway. There is only a discreet sign.
"We don't target a population or a problem," said Krieger. "People learn about us by word of mouth. Most of our clients walk or take the bus. We open ourselves to whomever walks in the door."
Often the first time people pass that entrance they are looking for a grocery bag of food. Once Krieger establishes a confidence with a client, a relationship blossoms. "If we can't offer a solution, we offer a support system."
She said that running out of groceries is often symptomatic of other issues, such as a loss of job, poor health and no insurance.
One of her most useful tools is a weekly support group meeting she calls the Breakfast Club. There people who are unhappy, angry or lonely discover resolution by being with other people. The talk sessions are frank. Some of the participants have been out of work for months and need company to become motivated and productive.
"She is a remarkably open person, willing and eager to accept people where they are and to look for the best in them," said a fellow volunteer, Pam Fleming. "She is pragmatic, too, and no-nonsense, and has a hearty sense of humor."
Born in Baltimore County, Krieger first came to this neighborhood in the 1960s as a Maryland Institute College of Art painting student. She soon adopted Baltimore City and as an undergraduate rented a loft space (later demolished for the Inner Harbor redevelopment) on Market Place. She and her roommates walked around the men who slept off their drinking habits in the building's vestibule.
"I never had a fear of the city," she said.
As a college student, she earned money selling candy at the old Morris Mechanic Theatre on opening night in 1967. She later was involved in the ownership of Bertha's restaurant in Fells Point. She has two grown children, a son and a daughter. She still paints for pleasure.
Colleagues said that Krieger has shepherded the Samaritan Community from a tiny closet office to a fluid organization that helps more than a thousand individuals and families a year with food, emergency financial assistance, counseling and referrals to other organizations for medical, legal and other assistance.
The organization has an annual budget of $142,000, of which $55,000 comes from private donations and a lesser amount from Memorial Episcopal Church. She works alongside a licensed social worker and more than 20 volunteers.
The Samaritan Community's mission is, "to meet the needs of families and individuals who are in crisis and wish to improve their lives."
Asked what changes she has noticed in her time at Samaritan, she offers an insight: "As Baltimore has prospered, it has become a far more expensive city for the poor to inhabit."