For 27 years, the Community Assistance Network has been helping the poor of Baltimore County with everything from free food to emergency medical supplies.
For the past two years, its executive director has been Bob Gadjys who, at 54, uses the terminology of his American Indian ancestors to describe himself as a "gray hair."
A native of upstate New York who says his upbringing in an orphanage during World War II let him know what hunger and want are all about, Mr. Gadjys retired from a career with the federal government in 1986.
He spent the next four years working in a national non-profit organization he started to aid American Indian development before taking over CAN, which is headquartered in what was formerly a school just off Merritt Boulevard in Dundalk.
Q: Why were you interested in this work?
A: I'm a traditionalist as far as my Native American beliefs go, so I believe very strongly that every person has a basket that they carry. When you learn something, it goes into your basket. By the time you are a gray hair, if you've had a full, rewarding life, your basket is full.
However, before you leave to go to the creator, before the spirit horse comes to take you away, hopefully your basket will have been emptied because you are supposed to give back to the people what you have learned.
After I retired and worked for a while at the national level, I found little satisfaction in that, little opportunity to give back. Working at the local level, close to the grass roots, is where you can help people in need. In Baltimore County, there are 75,000 people who need help, who need someone to speak for them. That's why I'm here.
Q: A lot of people come to Baltimore County to escape the difficulties you deal with, which are often seen as being problems of the city. Do you have to fight the perception that these problems don't exist in the county?
A: I battle that every day, 24 hours a day. You'll find me at every meeting where an issue related to low-income people comes up, battling the perception that there's no poverty in Baltimore County.
People talk about migration from the city. I've done some analysis and research on what took place in this county in the '70s and '80s. There were, in my opinion, two distinct out-migrations. There was the migration of the people who didn't like what was happening in the city and saw the affluence of Baltimore County as a way of not having to deal with those problems or escaping them or whatever.
But there was another migration -- you can see it in the 1990 census as opposed to the 1980 -- a migration of people in need to this county. This was both minority and non-minority people who had needs and saw Baltimore County as a possible source of meeting those needs.
That migration continues. You can see it in the Liberty Road area, in Catonsville, in various places. So what we've got in the county now is pockets as a result of those migrations.
The perception of old-timers -- by that I mean people who were born and raised generation after generation in Baltimore County -- is that the county is the same as it was back in the '60s even the '70s, an affluent rural community where issues like poverty, malnutrition, homelessness and all the related problems do not exist. It is a very false perception.
Q: So how do you fight that?
A: I find, when I go to meetings, that this is the sincere understanding of people who have lived and worked in the northern part of the county. I ask them pointedly, when was the last time you were down in Dundalk or Catonsville or over in Essex?
Then I just show them some statistics. Last year, we has 43,000 instances of providing help. We served some 12,500 families. And we are just a small non-profit agency, not the Department of Social Services. But sometimes when you start saying those numbers to people, they can't believe it, or they don't want to believe it.
Q: Do you think these problems are increasing?
A: Certainly. Last year I would say one-third of our clients were what I would call the new poor. These tend not to be minorities, they are people who have been Baltimore County residents for years, living and working in the community, good taxpaying people who are the backbone of the their synagogues and churches, who, all of a sudden, because of a severe illness or a cutback at Westinghouse or Martin Marietta or Bethlehem Steel, find their lives seriously hit.
The nice VA home they have in Dundalk or Catonsville, suddenly they can't afford the mortgage. Their meager savings are depleted rapidly. They're overqualified for a minimum-wage job; they're not old enough for retirement. Their skills are in manufacturing and all the jobs are in service industries.
They've gone through probably 12 to 18 months of pure hell. They've never asked for assistance in their life and they don't know where to turn. They come to us as a last resort, desperate, panicked, about to lose their home, nothing to feed the kids, no clothes on their back.