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Your Donation at Work
Bethesda Charities Benefit from Combined Federal Campaign

By Jane DeMouy

It's 12:30 p.m., and five Holton-Arms third graders and their mothers have just delivered a stockpot full of chicken noodle soup to the Bethesda kitchen of Christ Lutheran Church's fellowship hall. A nearby table is set with bread, salad, ham sandwiches and cake donated by Safeway. The 8-year-olds make soup for the homeless twice a month, and take turns helping during Bethesda Cares' daily lunch hour to see how their cooking is received.

When the little girls visit, the people they serve "just melt," says Sue Kirk, a social worker and M.B.A. who has directed community-based Bethesda Cares for the last 8 years. "Many of them have children of their own, and they've been separated from their families."

The Chevy Chase Newcomers Club fixes lunch once a month, as does the Japanese Christian Fellowship, but most of the time, Bethesda Cares' lunches — served from area churches 6 days a week, with dinner on Sundays — are the handiwork of Blake, who doesn't like to use his given name. He's "just Blake," says the retiree who learned to cook during stints in the Army and Air Force.

Blake (l) and Sam Wilson dish out lunch before clients arrive at 12:30 p.m.

Kirk calls him a "magician," who forages donations from Entenmann's, Giant, Safeway, local restaurants and bakeries, and other sources he's developed over the years. "You never know whether there will be 25 people or 65, but he's improvisational. He always comes up with something."

Blake's sidekick, Sam Wilson, picks up food donations in his truck, helps with the cooking and finds room in the fridge when there are more donations than expected. Blake and his crew of volunteers might serve 30 on an ordinary day, but when the weather gets cold, and Blake's made his good bean soup, numbers can soar. He likes to do spaghetti &$151; "good, hot and spicy" —lasagna, hamburgers, fried chicken. For Thanksgiving, he and a friend deep-fried 13 turkeys.

Among the 6,000 people who signed in for lunch over the course of a year, some are homeless, some live in a shelter and some work at seasonal jobs that will evaporate by Halloween. Kirk notes that sometimes a whole crew of landscape workers files through the door. "They only have seasonal work, and it saves them lunch money." But most of her clients — some 80 percent — have mental health problems. Many are alcoholics who sometimes enter an NIH protocol to overcome the problem. Some have just been released from jail and are trying to get a foothold on a new life. That's where the less visible services of Bethesda Cares are put to good use.

A person who has some social and job skills can pick out a suit from the Clothes Closet, apply for temporary housing and put together a resumé with help from Kirk or one of the other social workers who make up Bethesda Cares' staff. There's a client phone where they can make and receive calls. When an interview goes well, a client can be gone in a couple weeks, Kirk says. "The mentally ill are a lot harder. They're not going to get a job, and often, they won't take their meds."

Darren, a former client at Bethesda Cares, now supports the lunch service.

Nevertheless, Kirk's mostly part-time staff, helped by 450 volunteers from the community, tries to create a place where homeless people can come in from the street, maybe for a shower, or lunch or because they need a pair of socks or shoes. Kirk tries to provide a welcoming place where a homeless person can feel safe, and get to know and trust the staff. When they learn a person's story, social workers can help get prescriptions, medical help or housing through other resources in the county.

Sometimes it works, but Kirk's work is not for the impatient. Kirk recalls one man who lived on the streets of Bethesda for 27 years. He had worked at NIH as a groundskeeper. After a stint in Vietnam as a paratrooper, he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and became alcoholic. He survived through odd jobs and some disability money from the Veterans Administration.

A Bethesda Cares social worker talked with him and continued talking until he eventually agreed to go through the VA's addiction program. After finishing his rehab, he tore up the certificate and took up drinking again, saying he just wanted to prove he was capable of giving it up. The social worker kept talking, encouraging him to try one more time. Finally, he got sick and agreed to try the program again.

Once sober, he was eligible for housing available to disabled Vietnam vets. The interview process was difficult for him, but with the social worker's help, he was approved and given some furniture for his new space. For the first 6 months, Kirk recalls, he slept in a chair. He couldn't bring himself to sleep in a bed.

A client enjoys Blake's spicy spaghetti lunch.

Kirk and her colleagues can count many more success stories like this one, but still she says, "The power of an addiction is frightening," and panhandlers can readily make enough to buy "a case of Milwaukee's Best, a pint of vodka, some cigarettes." She asks do-gooders not to give to the people standing on medians with cardboard signs at rush hour. "It helps them stay where they are," she asserts. Bethesda Cares has drop cards listing their services and a drop-in center address that donors can put in panhandlers' cups instead. The group also accepts toiletries, used clothing, gym bags, back packs and sleeping bags, and of course, contributions through the CFC.

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