For The Dialog
RIDGELY, Md. – Now that the joys and tidings of Christmas 2016 have faded into Christmases past, St. Martin’s Barn faces an annual challenge: Assisting its clients through the lean winter months.
The gifts of food, gently used or new clothing and household items, cash and other items that flooded in during the winter holidays have slowed to a trickle. Yet the needs continue unabated.
“We appreciate those gifts,” said Odette Boyce-Galvez, St. Martin’s Barn manager. “We just wish everyone was in a giving spirit every single day, not just the holidays.”
The Barn includes a thrift store and food pantry. It’s part of St. Martin’s Ministries, which also includes St. Martin’s House that helps homeless women and their children in their efforts to become self-supporting, and programs that help people to remain in their homes. The ministries are housed on the grounds of St. Gertrude’s Monastery for Benedictine Sisters, who opened St. Martin’s in 1983.
An average of 274 families per month received food packages from St. Martin’s last year. The packages aim to provide enough food for 10 days. Thrift Shop sales of donated clothing and household goods totaled $62,755, a 30 percent increase from the previous year.
In the months of October, November, and December, the thrift store received 15,825 pounds of donated food to augment the amount provided by a federal government program or purchased through the Maryland Food Bank. That’s a little more than 30 percent of the total 51,185 pounds donated in all fiscal year 2016.
Much of that went to food baskets at Thanksgiving and Christmas, in addition to regular food packages, through December. Boyce-Galvez said the remainder should help the thrift store through part of February.
The private donations allow the thrift store flexibility it cannot use with food provided through federal programs, which restrict assistance to families to geographic areas. Since some of the barn’s clients travel from Delaware, Boyce-Galvez said, they cannot receive federally provided foods, so private donations are used.
St. Martin’s relies heavily on private donations and volunteers. “We average 56 to 60 percent of our operating revenue from donations and revenue generators,” such as the Thrift Store and an annual Author’s Luncheon, which will mark its 20th anniversary on March 2, said Jean Austin, president and CEO. The remainder is provided by grants from the government, foundations and other organizations.
Austin said food from the federal government has been “significantly reduced,” increasing the pressure to seek private donations. Nearby parishes, along with Ss. Peter and Paul High School in Easton and St. Elizabeth High School in Wilmington, hold food drives or assist in other ways.
Volunteers provided more than 10,000 hours last year, Boyce-Galvez said. “If it wasn’t for the volunteers, we wouldn’t be here.”
Susie Booze of St. Elizabeth Church in Denton is the longest-tenured volunteer, having started in 1984. “I like to do things, to keep busy,” the 95-year-old said.
Fran Hale of Bridgeville, Del., who attends Our Lady of Lourdes in Seaford, is one of the newer volunteers, working in the food pantry. “It’s an eye-opener and a heartbreaker, sometimes, to see what people really need and the circumstances they live under,” she said.
Those circumstances vary. Austin said about two-thirds of the people receiving food packages from St. Martin’s are elderly or single mothers. Many elderly clients had worked either seasonal jobs or were watermen, so they paid little into Social Security and now receive minimal benefits.
Boyce-Galvez said Caroline County is one of six counties on the Eastern Shore that are among the 10 poorest counties in Maryland. St. Martin’s had a number of middle-class families seeking assistance since the 2008 recession. Several companies on the Eastern Shore closed, reducing the number of jobs available. Also, jobs in landscaping or in fieldwork are not available during the winter.
St. Martin’s Ministries was started after sisters at St. Gertrude’s saw a need and started delivering food to their neighbors.
“I don’t think any of those sisters who began this ministry would believe that it was still necessary 34 years later,” Austin said. She noted that Sister Patricia Gamgort, executive director emerita, “used to say that she would like for St. Martin’s to go out of business, because that means we would have addressed people’s basic needs for food and housing. I don’t see that happening anytime soon.”
Instead, Austin wants to help people realize that hunger and homelessness are continuing issues. While she appreciates the efforts people make to help St. Martin’s and similar agencies during the Christmas season, she wants them to realize “we run our programs 365 days a year. The needs are there 365 days a year.”