Ladies of Charity celebrates 75th year

Bishop Stika praises diocesan group’s work during special Mass

By Bill Brewer

You’ve come a long way, ladies. The Ladies of Charity, which is marking its 75th anniversary this year, celebrated the milestone May 13 with a first for the nonprofit charitable organization that is part of the Diocese of Knoxville.

For a day, Ladies of Charity volunteers transformed their facility at 120 W. Baxter Ave. in North Knoxville into a Remote Area Medical clinic, where scores of residents in need received dental and vision treatment as well as basic health screenings.

The RAM clinic is another example of how the Ladies of Charity is changing to meet the needs of its clients, who predominantly live in lower-income areas or are homeless.

Bishop Richard F. Stika receives the gifts from Ladies of Charity members Geri Sutter, Nancy Scheurer, and Debbie Donahoo.

As these ladies can attest, there is no shortage of clients needing the services offered by Ladies of Charity. And Bishop Richard F. Stika acknowledged the contribution the organization makes to the community during a special Mass May 7 at Immaculate Conception Church honoring the Ladies of Charity for three-quarters
of a century of charitable service.

Concelebrating the Mass were Father David Boettner, rector of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus; Monsignor Al Humbrecht, pastor of Holy Spirit Parish in Soddy-Daisy; Monsignor Patrick Garrity, pastor of St. John Neumann Parish in Farragut; Father Michael Woods, pastor of All Saints Parish in Knoxville; Father Ron Franco, CSP, pastor of Immaculate Conception; Father Tim Sullivan, CSP, Immaculate Conception associate pastor; and Father Jim Haley, CSP. Father John Dowling, pastor of Holy Ghost Parish and spiritual moderator for the Ladies of Charity, attended the anniversary dinner following Mass.

Deacon Joe Stackhouse served as deacon of the Word and Deacon Mike Gouge served as deacon of the Eucharist at the Mass. A choir of Ladies of Charity volunteers provided the music liturgy.

“It’s a great joy to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Ladies of Charity. We gather together to give thanks to almighty God for the gift of this fine, fine organization, an outreach of Jesus himself in so many ways,” Bishop Stika said.

The bishop related to the Ladies of Charity staff and volunteers a story about St. Teresa of Kolkata, who was Mother Teresa at the time. He said she stopped to help a woman on the street in India in distress. When the woman in need recognized her as Mother Teresa, she resisted intently, fearing that Mother Teresa would try to convert her to Christianity in order to care for her.

“The woman, terrified, kept yelling, ‘Leave me alone. Leave me alone. Why are you helping me?’ And she did that over and over,” Bishop Stika said.

Bishop Stika said Mother Teresa finally told the woman that God is always with us and that she, through God, could help her. The woman, still quite upset, said, “Which God is your God? What is the name of your God?” And Mother Teresa replied, “My God’s name is love.”

“Charity. Love. Kindness. The language we speak is the language of our actions. That’s what I wanted to share with you as you celebrate 75 years as the Ladies of Charity,” the bishop said.

He told the women — and men — who volunteer for the Ladies of Charity that their work, through the Catholic Church, provides a broad spectrum of charity, love, and kindness in the assistance they provide to people in their journey through life.

The bishop said he often encourages parishioners to be the face, hands, voice, feet, and especially the heart of Jesus.

“To me, that’s what the Ladies of Charity do in so many different ways. You exemplify that. Thank you. So, 75 years down and another 75 to go. And then in another 75 the mission will still be the same — to be Jesus,” the bishop said.

In the blood

Dr. John Coulter, a Knoxville
dentist and a Diocese of Knoxville
parishioner, treats a patient during the Remote Area Medical Clinic at the Ladies of Charity
headquarters on May 13.

When the Ladies of Charity was established in the Knoxville area in 1942, the United States was just entering World War II, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in his third term as president, and the country still was trying to shake off the effects of the Great Depression.

And a handful of Catholic women formed a group to reach out and assist those in the community struggling to make ends meet.

Now, 75 years later, the Ladies of Charity still is reaching out to give those in need a hand up – but in new ways that complement the services already offered.

For decades, the Ladies of Charity in Knoxville operated from the ground floor of the former Holy Ghost Church at the corner of Central Street and Hinton Avenue.

The Ladies of Charity also has Tennessee offices in Chattanooga, Nashville, and Memphis.

Volunteers provided clothing and food at no cost to those in need and manned a thrift store from the building, where clothing, household items, and other donated goods were sold to raise operating funds for the organization.

Business was steady and the need was great.

Erika Fuhr was a 17-year-old nurse when she began volunteering with the Ladies of Charity 40 years ago. Now, it’s in her blood.

She recalls working inside the old Holy Ghost Church building, sorting clothes dropped off by donors and stocking the food pantry.

“The Ladies of Charity went into the old Holy Ghost Church in 1964 and was there until 2011, when we moved into the new building. Back then, clothing was sorted on tables and the food pantry was small. There was no privacy for clients,” she said.

Mrs. Fuhr, who has recruited her husband, Joe, to be a Ladies of Charity volunteer, pointed out that even with renovations to the old Holy Ghost Church building in the early 1990s, demand was exceeding the space needed to meet it. For a time, the food pantry and the clothing operation were split into separate addresses to provide more space for each, but that proved a hardship for those in need with transportation challenges.

It became increasingly clear that a larger facility was needed, and efforts were made to find a larger location. Mrs. Fuhr said that in 2006, the Ladies of Charity and the diocese looked seriously at the vacant Merita Bakery building about two blocks away. But the property wasn’t a good fit. In the meantime, Mr. and Mrs. Fuhr had their eye on the Royal Beauty Supply building on Baxter Avenue, just around the corner from the old Holy Ghost Church.

The Royal building had become vacant and was available for purchase. It had just what the Ladies of Charity had been looking for — a warehouse with loading dock to receive larger amounts of donated items, ample room for a food pantry, plenty of retail space to sell donated items, a number of offices, and a large, open area for meetings. It also had a price tag of nearly $1 million.

Father John Dowling and Ladies of Charity members, including Julia Schriver and Geri Sutter, take the first ride in the new elevator serving the Ladies of Charity headquarters building at 120 W. Baxter Ave. in Knoxville.

“In my 40 years with the Ladies of Charity, nothing is more apparent than the hand of God. It is amazing how often you run into a wall and then the wall moves,” Mrs. Fuhr said.

She explained that the Ladies of Charity had established a building fund and a financial plan for a new facility. Monsignor Humbrecht had advised the organization that increasing its size would result in increased sales. The Diocese of Knoxville approved the plan and pledged assistance.

However, the day Ladies of Charity leaders were going to finalize plans to purchase the Royal Beauty Supply building, the LoC leaders decided to bow out, uncertain about the financial commitment such a purchase would require.

“The day we decided to tell them (diocese) we couldn’t do it, they were going to tell us we shouldn’t do it. Then we received a call that day that a bequest was leaving us $384,000 plus another $14,000,” Mrs. Fuhr said.

The real estate deal was back on and the Ladies of Charity bought the newer, more spacious headquarters in 2009, moving into it in March 2011.

Thanks to the generous bequest, the Ladies of Charity had a manageable monthly mortgage, which was offset by fundraisers like an annual golf tournament organized by Joe Fuhr and other volunteer men.

And then the hand of God revealed itself once more.

Mrs. Fuhr said a man who had volunteered with the Ladies of Charity passed away, and his wife paid off the remaining mortgage, which was about $167,000.

“You can’t tell me the hand of God wasn’t involved in this,” she said.

The Ladies of Charity has annual reports dating to the 1940s that indicate donations received typically were 50 cents and a dollar, with $5 and $20 only occasionally given.

“People have always given what they had. My husband refers to it as the ‘mustard seed,’” Mrs. Fuhr said. Whether it was a dollar donation in 1947 or a bequest of hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years, the Ladies of Charity know how to put their donations to good use.

“They know how to stretch a dollar. It always has been by the skinny skin to keep things going,” Mrs. Fuhr said. “We thank the volunteers, the donors, and the people of the Catholic community who have donated money and in-kind donations to make this work over all this time.”

“The need out there is too great now. The generosity of donors and volunteers allows the Ladies of Charity to not only survive but thrive,” she said.

Fast forward to 2017, business continues to be steady and the need is still great.

Like many other Ladies of Charity members, Debbie Donahoo is blessed with perspective. She joined the organization in the 1980s when it was located in the original Holy Ghost Church and has watched it change as a volunteer, as president (2011-2012), and now as volunteer coordinator.

After being in the new building, she is amazed at how much was done in the old church building and from the Dameron Avenue office.

“When we moved here, we knew our mission would bloom. It was wonderful to be under one roof,” Mrs. Donahoo said. “Everything we do is for our clients. To have both areas under one roof was fantastic for the clients. And we’ve been able to reach out to more people. In this ZIP code, a lot of people are in need.”

She noted that Knoxville Area Rescue Ministries (KARM), the Salvation Army, Volunteer Ministries, and FISH food pantry have operations in the same ZIP code as the Ladies of Charity.

The charitable response in the community is a product of need and not competition. And through the intercession of Sts. Vincent de Paul, Louise de Marillac, and Teresa, Mrs. Donahoo feels the Holy Spirit will nourish clients and volunteers spiritually.

“The Holy Spirit is the one who covers this entire place. I hope, through Him, we can use our volunteer resources and their know-how to increasingly benefit our clients,” she said.

A good fit

A volunteer for the Remote Area Medical clinic held at the Ladies of Charity assists a client with eyeglasses. The clinic offered free dental and vision care for Ladies of Charity clients.

Ladies of Charity donors — like its volunteers — come in a variety of packages. There are singles, couples, young and older, families, wealthy, middle-, and lower-income individuals.

When serving those in need, demographics don’t matter.

Mrs. Fuhr cited one donor who personifies the spirit of giving and the mission of the Ladies of Charity.

A young woman regularly donates clothing — very nice designer clothing.

After watching this young woman repeatedly drop off her donations, Mrs. Fuhr befriended her and discovered that when this woman was a young girl, her mother, trying to make ends meet, brought their family to shop at the Ladies of Charity. As they pored over the tables of clothing on a visit, they found a designer outfit that fit the young girl and she wore it to school.

The girl soon realized that her “new” designer clothes allowed her to fit in, and for the first time she felt comfortable with her peers.

“That left an impression on her, and she said now she wants to donate her clothes so that a young girl in need might have the same experience,” Mrs. Fuhr said. “We thank our donors and tell them they keep us going.”

And just like the donors, the donations have evolved over time. Since moving into a larger facility, the Ladies of Charity has expanded its offerings to include refrigerated foods like milk and meat, furniture, electronics, and even specialty products like floral items and Christmas goods.

In addition, the charitable group now uses a truck to pick up food and furniture donations and has a team of volunteer repairmen to fix damaged furniture and electronics for resale.

A team of dentists and dental hygienists from the Knoxville area volunteered its time and services to treat people from the center city needing dental care during the RAM clinic at the Ladies of Charity.

Thanks to a $17,500 grant from the diocese’s St. Mary’s Legacy Foundation, the Ladies of Charity in 2016 was able to install a walk-in refrigerator/freezer to store perishable food. And through generous donations and discounts, the organization also is able to provide fresh fruit and produce, bread, and eggs in addition to canned goods, milk, and meat.

For the longtime volunteers, it’s a stark difference from the early food pantry tucked away in a corner of the original Holy Ghost Church.

“We’re overwhelmed by the enterprise,” said Kathi O’Hara, who serves on the LoC executive board as treasurer. “Before, we were getting 400 to 500 pounds that we could buy (at a discount) from Second Harvest that would fit in a car. Now, with our truck, we can pick up 4,000 to 5,000 pounds of food.”

“And we now can offer fresh milk. Mayfield delivers milk for the whole week. Without the refrigeration unit, we had to distribute powdered milk,” Mrs. O’Hara added.

Mrs. O’Hara explained that the milk, fruit, meat, and canned and boxed goods are purchased at a reduced rate while all the bread is donated by area grocery stores. They are all elements of every food package given to those in need.

“We are really proud of our food packages, which have been approved by nutritionists,” she noted.

And while clothing and the food pantry remain the core of what Ladies of Charity offers to those in need, they are only part of the overall picture.

Responding to the need, Ladies of Charity also offers shelter services that include kerosene for heating, utility, and rent assistance. The organization has added basic medicine to its portfolio of services. It works with CVS pharmacies to fill general prescriptions like antibiotics for people with no access to health insurance. No opioids are dispensed.

In 2016, Ladies of Charity distributed 4,025 pounds of toiletries, 26,334 clothing items to 17,120 people, and 26,763 food packets.

Mrs. O’Hara pointed out that the Ladies of Charity does not only serve its immediate area, although its ZIP code, 37917, has a lion’s share of the residents in need.

“We have shoppers and clients from all over the Knoxville area. We don’t restrict our services to Knox County. We serve people in need from all over the area,” she said.

Geri Sutter, the current president of Ladies of Charity, credits much of the organization’s change to Susan Unbehaun, who was named in March 2015 as the organization’s first executive director. That sentiment is echoed throughout the LoC.

“For 72 years we did not have an executive director. We have been blessed because we now have one,” Mrs. Sutter said. Mrs. O’Hara added that the change in leadership was prompted by growth.

The group’s president and treasurer agree that once the Ladies of Charity relocated to its much larger facility and then Mrs. Unbehaun led an expansion of services, demand quickly caught up to supply.

“With increased resources we have increased our services. But there is a need for more volunteers,” Mrs. Sutter said, praising corporate sponsors like longtime partner Whirlpool for their support.

When Mrs. Sutter and Mrs. O’Hara step back and survey the organization, they are “amazed” by its scope. “Even when the new building was purchased, we couldn’t envision ever filling it up,” Mrs. O’Hara said.

“The Holy Spirit was present when He provided financing for us,” Mrs. Sutter added, pointing out the contributions of former member Helen Marx, whose bequest made the building purchase possible, and Shirley and Edward Nicholson, whose donation allowed the Ladies of Charity to pay off the building’s mortgage.

“The gift of time is invaluable, and the small gifts add up. But the large gifts and grants we receive are so important,” Mrs. Sutter said.

Ladies of Charity members Brenda Burnett and Laura Deubler assist clients

Mrs. Sutter, Mrs. O’Hara and other Ladies of Charity members agree on the importance of being good stewards of time, money, and other resources. And they believe the Ladies of Charity’s track record bears that out. Recent evidence of applying resources to a specific need is the nonprofit’s new elevator, which now allows ease of access between the building’s first and second floors.

Mrs. Unbehaun said the elevator, which was put into service earlier this year, was needed to allow people with disabilities or physical limitations access to the second floor, where offices and a large meeting space are located.

The need for an elevator was apparent May 13 during the RAM clinic. The dental treatment area, complete with dental chairs, lights, treatment equipment, and dental staff, occupied the second floor. That space is in demand daily, as Laura Deubler can attest.

Ms. Deubler is the emergency assistance program manager for the Ladies of Charity, overseeing the services clients who are in need receive.

According to Ms. Deubler, Ladies of Charity sees 50 to 75 families a day needing assistance, up from about 20. The reason for the increase, she said, is because more people are now off the federal food stamp rolls.

In addition to assisting people in the desperate throes of poverty, Ms. Deubler said many clients can be categorized as the working poor, who rely on Ladies of Charity to fill in gaps of food and shelter assistance between paychecks.

She would like to see a day when the emergency assistance program numbers decrease rather than increase, but she isn’t too hopeful.

And as part of that service expansion, Ladies of Charity now offers assistance with prescriptions through the emergency assistance program. Ms. Deubler explained that the program partners with CVS in covering the cost of basic antibiotics, blood pressure and other heart medication, and meds for specific conditions like diabetes and thyroid. The program does not assist with pain meds or any prescriptions that are mood altering, antidepressants, or seizure-control prescriptions.

What began as a $5,000 annual budget allotment for prescription assistance has now increased to $10,000. “It really fills a need, and there are few places that help with medication,” Ms. Deubler said.

Another 75 years

Ladies of Charity members and Diocese of
Knoxville deacons take part in the 75th-anniversary Mass for the Knoxville organization at Immaculate Conception Church on May 7.

Even though she has been on the job for two years and is leading the Ladies of Charity in new directions, Mrs. Unbehaun continues to be surprised at the scope of need and care.

“The magnitude is mind-boggling,” she said.

And she looks to the future with an eye leveled squarely on the past. And if the present is any indication, the Ladies of Charity has a future in helping those needing assistance.

Mrs. Unbehaun credits dedicated board members and volunteers for making the organization work, citing the acquisition of the new building as an example of the Ladies of Charity always finding a way to carry out its mission.

She said 190 people received dental and vision treatment at the RAM clinic, something that wouldn’t have been possible in years past.

“The RAM clinic was very successful. It showed people what we can do here with the extra space. The board members were very touched by it, and Father Dowling said that many organizations distribute food, but offering a healthcare clinic in addition to all our services goes above and beyond,” she said.

Mrs. Unbehaun is hopeful the Ladies of Charity can host other RAM clinics because she believes clients’ lives are changing with the additional programs, whether it’s receiving dentures or utility assistance that allows them to get into a new residence.

She believes the Ladies of Charity is having to adapt to changes in the way business is done by companies and government agencies with which LoC must work in order to help its clients. She noted that changing times keep LoC from operating the way it always has.

But there is a silver lining.

Bishop Stika shares a friendly hug with Ladies of Charity member Blanche Mackay after the Diamond Jubilee Mass for the Knoxville organization at Immaculate Conception Church on May 7.

By changing the way donated goods are handled, Ladies of Charity has seen its sales increase from a projection of 9 percent to actual growth of 20 percent in 2016.

Besides sales growth, what are other indicators that activity is up?

Mrs. Unbehaun said a volunteer recently remarked that she used to arrive for work at the Ladies of Charity building with magazines and her knitting to bide the time. However, she said those days are gone and the magazines and knitting now stay home.

On any given day, the Ladies of Charity building is a whirlwind of activity, whether serving customers in the retail shop, distributing goods to clients, or warehousing donated items. Mrs. Unbehaun said the organization has devotions to St. Vincent de Paul, who founded the Ladies of Charity; St. Louise de Marillac, who grew the order; and modern-day intercessor St. Teresa of Kolkata that help sustain it. And locally, there is praise for Father Albert Henkel and Monsignor Xavier Mankel, both former pastors of Holy Ghost, who served for years as Ladies of Charity spiritual moderators.

“We have to remember where we came from and that there is a purpose in everything we do because of what has taken place historically,” Mrs. Unbehaun said. “These ladies have very strong backs to get the Ladies of Charity to where it is today. We want to continue that, to make differences in people’s lives and help them move ahead.”

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