Faith inspires effort to help homeless people

County honors teacher, former seminarian who founded HOPE Inc. to aid the needy

Volunteer profile

November 03, 2006|By SUSAN GVOZDAS | SUSAN GVOZDAS,Special to The Sun

Melanie and John Sanderson had a run of bad luck last spring.

Evicted from their apartment with their two children, the couple had bad credit and couldn't find a landlord willing to rent to them. They ended up at a homeless shelter, Melanie Sanderson said, and a friend who promised to store their furniture sold it at a yard sale. When the family moved in July into a rented house in Curtis Bay, they had little more than the clothing they wore.

Not for long. The nonprofit HOPE Inc. donated beds, tables and a couch, and last month, founder Leo Zerhusen dropped off a crib. The Sandersons are expecting their third child."They were my only option at the time," Melanie Sanderson said. "They provided a miracle for us."

Named by the Anne Arundel County Executive Office of Community Services as its most outstanding volunteer of 2006, Zerhusen was honored last night at the "Maryland You Are Beautiful" ceremony honoring volunteers statewide.

Zerhusen, 59, of Linthicum, said he was honored by the award and that he hoped the visibility would help him find a larger home for HOPE.

He had volunteered at churches, schools and non-profits for 15 years before founding HOPE Inc. in 2004. The organization has helped provide clothing, furniture and school supplies to needy families in northern Anne Arundel County, Baltimore and the Appalachian region.

Fay Mauro, executive director of the county volunteer center, served on the award selection committee.

"I just think ... his [Zerhusen] efforts are not only outstanding, but they also are particularly meaningful because they might be an inspiration for others to do the same," Mauro said.

Zerhusen teaches math and religion at St. Philip Neri Catholic School and once studied for the priesthood. He said he dreamed of creating an organization that would go one step further in helping the homeless once they leave the shelter.

Building on his belief in God, he named the organization HOPE, an acronym that stands for "He Opens Paths to Everyone." The Christian-based nonprofit is based at E-J Enterprises, a Ferndale company that has donated warehouse space.

"I always felt we needed to give back to others," Zerhusen said. He and his wife, Diane, started collecting clothes for the homeless in 2001. During that time, he went on a work camp with a youth group to Appalachia. When clothing donations increased, he started to send the clothing to the Appalachian mission. HOPE also distributes clothing to Arundel House of Hope, which provides support services to the poor and homeless, and shelters in Baltimore.

In 2004, Zerhusen applied for nonprofit status for HOPE and set up a board to determine how the organization could help others without duplicating services. He eventually expanded from his home to space at Sarah's House, a homeless shelter at Fort Meade, and later moved to E-J Enterprises. HOPE once occupied 8,000 square feet, but the aluminum-and-plastics distributor needed to expand. HOPE now squeezes into half the space.

The shortage of space has Zerhusen looking for room to store the donated clothing, furniture and small appliances. He also dreams of opening a retail area to eliminate surplus and generate money for the organization. A large delivery truck also would come in handy, Zerhusen said.

The organization gradually has expanded its services to providing school supplies to guidance counselors, who distribute the notebooks, pencils and other items to needy children.

The Zerhusens get referrals from Sarah's House, Birthright in Glen Burnie and the county social services department. He and his wife pick up donations and drop them off whenever they can.

HOPE recently received a referral to help a 57-year-old woman caring for her troubled 17-year-old grandson, Zerhusen said. They were sleeping on the floor because they didn't have money for rent and food. Because of Zerhusen, both of them have beds and a kitchen table where they can eat breakfast together.

"We changed her house into a home," Zerhusen said.

HOPE Inc. will hold a yard sale from 8 a.m. to noon Saturday in the gym at St. Philip Neri Catholic School at 6401 S. Orchard Road in Linthicum Heights. For more information, call 410-859-1297.

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