Community Stars Shining Bright: Meet Helping Hands Ministry of St. Paschal Baylon Parish

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By Monique Hopson, Master of Science in Social Administration Degree Candidate at the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences

Welcome to Sangfroid Strategy’s new series spotlighting Northeast Ohio nonprofit organizations that have done the hard work of adapting their programming and continue to deliver great services during these times. 2020 was a year that left many nonprofits learning how to adjust to current events, while 2021 has displayed the resiliency and adaptability that has been a hallmark of the industry in Northeastern Ohio. We asked nonprofits to share the impact they have on the communities they serve, how they have adapted to meet emerging needs arising from COVID-19, and the challenges they experienced.

Helping Hands Ministry of St. Paschal Baylon Parish

The number of individuals living unsheltered in the Cleveland area is estimated to be a staggering 23,000 people. The Helping Hands (and Clown) Ministry of St. Paschal Baylon Parish in Highland Heights is there to help those in need. Formed in 2000 by Deacon Joe Bourgeois and parishioner Bob Ukovic, the nonprofit brings joy to those on the streets by dressing as clowns and  distributing food to individuals who were living unsheltered. 

Although they no longer dress as clowns, Helping Hands Ministry focuses on reducing people’s food and housing insecurity by delivering meals, clothing, tents, toiletries, and more recently PPE masks, and other items that make being without shelter easier.  Items are delivered using the Knight Rider van (named after the sports team of St. Paschal Baylon Parish, the Knights), and another cargo van. Helping Hands Ministry’s mission is to provide a non-judgmental relationship that is established over time, and those that join the ministry are educated on that mission. Relationships are important to the ministry as they know that those relationships are created by building trust between them and those they serve. 

Helping Hands Ministry impacts those they serve in meaningful ways and they receive much gratitude and thanks from their clients. They are always looking for new sites and projects that can use their services and try to determine what items are needed and do their best to provide them. Those that volunteer in the Ministry work so hard because they know how hard their clients are working not only to survive daily but to make real and significant changes in their lives. One example of the strength that is inherent in those that the ministry serves can be seen in the story of a gentleman who fought his way back from addiction and living unsheltered. He made the decision that it was time  to change his life and did so by overcoming his addiction and living unsheltered and he has now been sober for 5 years. He has his own home, is gainfully employed, and strives to give back to the community. Lee Costanzo, who has been involved with the ministry for 5 years and is the Lead for Food Distribution at Harper’s Pointe, stated that the man who was formerly unsheltered but now thriving told her that the volunteers “`loved him when he thought he was unlovable.” It is these words and sentiments that help keep the nonprofit focused.

COVID-19 Response

COVID-19 and the restrictions that have come along with the pandemic have had a major effect on nonprofit organizations in Northeastern Ohio and Helping Hands Ministry is no exception. Despite the difficulties, it continues to serve the unsheltered in the community and also delivers food and supplies to the Metanoia Shelter, University Settlement, Harper’s Pointe, and the over-55 community in Mayfield Heights. Before COVID-19, volunteers served hot meals, played games, and socialized with the residents of these buildings. With pandemic restrictions they are no longer able to use the community kitchens, share hot meals, or gather with the residents. While people’s needs are still being met, the atmosphere is not as social or friendly. Lee Costanzo believes that relationships are an important aspect of her work, but it is hard to do right now. Although they continue to try their best, it is difficult. 

In light of these changes, the nonprofit shifted to providing canned goods, produce, and items that people can use to make their own meals. The Knight Riders continue to go out on Wednesday evenings and serve food and supplies from the back of the van. They have also partnered with a local Italian restaurant and fast food restaurants that provide pre-bagged meals that they can pass out along with PPE masks and hand sanitizer. Case Western Reserve University, John Carroll University, and St. Ignatius High School have similar programs, but with schools and colleges closing, these groups have had to shut down. Helping Hands Ministry saw the growing need and answered the call in March 2020 by adding an additional evening to take food and supplies to the unsheltered. 

The first Friday that the Knight Riders went out an extra time, they were distributing food and essential items and were told “we hadn’t seen anyone in 4 days – we thought we were never going to get fed again”.

Managing with Limited Volunteers 

Meeting the needs of the unsheltered is never easy, but during a pandemic it has become particularly difficult. Helping Hands Ministry currently has a limited number of active volunteers, a trend that has been reported by many nonprofits in the region. In a recent survey to local nonprofits, one of Sangfroid Strategy’s clients found that 52% of nonprofits  locally reported decreased volunteers due to COVID-19. Nationally, volunteers for nonprofit agencies have decreased by two-thirds while the number of people in crisis continues to rise. These trends are evident for Helping Hands. Their 60 volunteers are primarily empty-nesters who have time and interest in giving back to their community, but between health concerns and the barriers to transporting volunteers together in vans to local sites, it has been harder to keep the volunteers actively serving their venues. 

The Future

Looking forward, Lee believes that the greatest challenges for Helping Hands Ministry will be building their volunteer base, expanding their ministry, and continuing to grow financially. Helping Hands Ministry needs volunteers of all ages and backgrounds, with both the passion and the physical ability to serve, to help them sustain their organization long-term. Keeping a close eye on what their clients need, and responding to the need, is what the nonprofit is all about. 

Monetary donations are also down for nonprofits such as Helping Hands, and consequently, those that they serve suffer. However, the Helping Hands Ministry is blessed and thankful that monetary donations have been steady and even more generous for our needs during this unprecedented time of uncertainty. The nonprofit is funded by the parishioners of St. Paschal Baylon Parish, neighbors, and donors from all walks of life, including children that operate lemonade stands in the summer and donate their earnings to the nonprofit. The donations are used to maintain their delivery vehicles, keep their pantry stocked, and to buy needed supplies. As the warmer weather approaches, many shelters will begin to turn people away and the unsheltered will again be forced to live on the streets, in tent cities, and in abandoned homes. This is why the need to expand their ministry is so great. 

If you would like to volunteer or donate to Helping Hands Ministry, If you would like to volunteer or donate to Helping Hands, please Google St. Paschal Clown and Helping Hands Ministry, follow them on Facebook or you can support other local nonprofits that serve people without homes, such as the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, The City Mission, or St. Herman’s House

Did you know, the way we refer to those experiencing homelessness matters? Read about how you can help eliminate shame for those who are unsheltered, and help humanize the phrase.

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