Catholic Charities brings city's social services story to life with Project AWARE

NONPROFITS INC.

August 30, 1993|By LESTER A. PICKER

Let's face it: providing social services to those in need in Baltimore can be difficult. The pay is not great, the hours long, the heartbreaks all too common. You would think that, at the very least, charities would be good at telling their story, helping community leaders to understand better what they are up against.

Sadly, helping people understand the social services story in our neighborhoods is generally not done well. Now, enter Catholic Charities, which has found a way to do it right with its Project AWARE program.

My involvement in Project AWARE began with an enlightening conversation with Hal Smith, executive director of Catholic Charities, who described to me the organization's efforts to stem "the tidal wave of human misery" in Baltimore.

Aside from providing direct services to people in need through its 45 different agencies, Catholic Charities sees its mission as dealing with the root causes of long-term social problems. Executives within the organization serve on many governmental and private policy-making bodies devoted to solving complex social issues. As part of these thrusts, Catholic Charities has addressed the necessity for educating the general public to the needs of the poor and disenfranchised.

Before I walked out the door, Smith had enrolled me in Project AWARE, a four-part series of seminars designed to educate people about social issues such as hunger, disability, child care, poverty and aging. Having just completed the four monthly meetings, I cannot speak highly enough of their value. Every corporate executive, every community leader, every compassionate adult in Maryland should attend Project AWARE.

Here is the simple premise upon which AWARE is built. Get 10 or 12 community-minded people together in a room. Select them for diversity in race, religion and professional background. Then, at each three-hour session, systematically expose the group

to one social problem through the eyes of an agency dealing with that problem on the front lines every day.

In four months, I visited four different sites. I saw hunger, poverty and homelessness being addressed by Our Daily Bread. I temporarily experienced the despair of the severely disabled. I talked with single, poor parents trying to get their lives together through a neighborhood Head Start program. And, I visited a nursing home facility that embodies the ideals of dignity, respect and self-worth for our elderly. At each agency, I talked with clients and staff.

The staff for my sessions, Jack Bovaird and Catrese Brown, were extraordinary -- knowledgeable, caring, dedicated and committed to making this program the success that it is. Every one of my companions seemed to feel the same.

At first I was surprised at the diverse group of participants. When I asked Bovaird about that, he replied, "The program is not limited to Catholics because we're talking about breaking walls down, not building them up. We ask people to commit to attending at least three sessions. If they do that, we promise them they will be stimulated, challenged and engaged." Chalk that one up as a candidate for Understatement Of The Year.

Another surprise to me was that the sessions are not structured as walking advertisements for Catholic Charities. Each session truly focuses on the issues, not the needs of the agency. $H Through thoughtful activities designed to sensitize participants, we all gained valuable insights. Along the way I also had a chance to examine some of my own biases and misperceptions toward the elderly, the poor, the homeless, and the disabled. As Bovaird so eloquently says, "Too many of our policy decisions are based on stereotypes, not reality. If we can confront people's beliefs with the reality behind the stereotype, you can get them to change their beliefs."

If there is anything that Project AWARE allowed us to do, it was to get behind the stereotypes of poverty, homelessness, disability and aging. Judging by my reaction and those of the other participants, I suspect the results of these revelations will be far reaching.

So far, some 175 Marylanders have participated in Project AWARE. That falls short by at least a million or two, by my estimate. Next week we'll look at some of the larger issues raised by this innovative and effective program.

(Les Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at 71 Bathon Circle, Elkton, Md. 21921; [410] 392-3160.)

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