By Bill Brewer
If they come, you will build it.
Susan Unbehaun and the team of employees and volunteers at the Ladies of Charity in Knoxville have put their own twist on the movie Field of Dreams and its memorable line, “If you build it, they will come.”
Mrs. Unbehaun, Ladies of Charity executive director, and her staff were joined by supporters and the St. Mary’s Legacy Foundation to cut the ribbon March 11 on a new walk-in freezer/cooler that will significantly add to the amount of food the Ladies of Charity can store and give to people in need.
The St. Mary’s Legacy Foundation awarded a grant of $17,500 to the Ladies of Charity to install the freezer/cooler. Mrs. Unbehaun and the Ladies of Charity staff proudly exhibited the new refrigerated unit to supporters March 11, including to members of the North Knoxville Business & Professional Association, which held its regular meeting at the Ladies of Charity facility at 120 W. Baxter Ave. that morning.
Mrs. Unbehaun thanked the St. Mary’s Legacy Foundation and all the Ladies of Charity supporters for making the freezer/cooler possible.
“We now can increase the households that we serve,” she said, noting that Ladies of Charity staff is greeted almost on a daily basis by people waiting at the door to receive bags of food. “We were limited in the food we could store. Now we have doubled our pantry size and we have added a freezer and cooler.”
The St. Mary’s Legacy Foundation has been an important partner with the Ladies of Charity in funding key initiatives that help provide for those in need. The foundation also has awarded thousands of dollars in grants to the Ladies of Charity to provide dairy products and eggs.
The staples are part of every bag of food handed out by the Ladies of Charity, which also receives generous grants and donations from other agencies and organizations like United Way and Second Harvest Food Bank, which sells food by the truckload to the Ladies of Charity at a deep discount.
“This is the perfect example of the St. Mary’s Legacy Foundation. We support charity, health care, and education. The Ladies of Charity honor us by allowing us to be a small part of their ministry. They do such great work,” said John Deinhart of the foundation, who also is director of Stewardship and Strategic Planning for the Diocese of Knoxville.
The Ladies of Charity and its Knoxville network of 485 volunteers have built a thriving thrift store and expanded into much more than that. In addition to providing food, the organization assists people in need with clothing, medication, utilities, rent, kerosene, infant necessities, adult toiletries, back-to-work clothing, and even some back-to-work training.
Another initiative Mrs. Unbehaun has gotten off the ground since she arrived in March 2015 is the pick-up of discarded and donated furniture and the ability to repair that furniture for sale in the thrift store. The Ladies of Charity purchased a used cargo van last year to pick up large items and food. The truck is paying for itself as furniture picked up and repaired by the volunteers has increased Ladies of Charity sales and also cut costs on food delivery.
The nonprofit group, which has an active sister organization in Chattanooga to assist people in Hamilton, Bradley and surrounding counties, had 200 volunteers in 2014. Volunteer groups supporting the Ladies of Charity also are on the rise.
“Our volunteer number is way up and it’s because of the volunteer groups supporting us. Debbie Donahoo is our volunteer coordinator. The other reason is Father John Dowling at Holy Ghost Church is helping us get the word out about volunteers,” Mrs. Unbehaun said.
Volunteer groups include the Sertoma Center, Breakthrough Corp., University of Tennessee Leadership and Service, and Fulton High School.
The growth in volunteer numbers is helping to offset the growth in Ladies of Charity clients and Thrift Store customers, which has been increasing at a 4 percent annual clip. Mrs. Unbehaun cautioned that the 4 percent number could increase beginning this month, when between 500,000 and 1 million people across the country who are in the SNAP program (formerly known as the food stamp program) lose their assistance because of a new three-month limit on SNAP benefits for unemployed adults aged 18-49 who aren’t disabled or raising minor children.
“That could increase the need here,” Mrs. Unbehaun said, noting that 80 percent of Ladies of Charity clients come from six ZIP codes surrounding the building near downtown Knoxville. Most of the clients are single-parent households, and 90 percent of the clients are unemployed.
In this Year of Mercy, Mrs. Unbehaun and the team of Ladies of Charity volunteers see Jesus everyday through the people they serve.
She is constantly reminded of the verse Matthew 25:40, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” She keeps a note dated March 1, 2016, from Father Dowling that says, “Please give Jimmy some clothes and some food. Thank you, Rev. John Dowling.”
“Just substitute Jesus for Jimmy. That is your work of mercy. That can ground you when you get caught up in the day-to-day weeks that we have,” Mrs. Unbehaun said.
“I have this note sitting on a frame on my desk next to my homeless Jesus (figurine),” she said, noting that there are times when you must do to the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters when it is after hours or when the rules of operation must be temporarily suspended.
“We gave Jimmy some food, and all he wanted was a pair of pants and some shoes. This was after client hours,” she said. “You don’t always have to follow the rules. You have some cases like that.”
Mrs. Unbehaun said the support of parishes, with their donations of food, thrift store items, and volunteers, is critical to the success of the Ladies of Charity. She welcomes the support from as many parishes as possible.
“We can’t do it without all our parishes. When you have people waiting at the door for food or kerosene for heating oil, it really puts things in perspective,” she said.
As the Ladies of Charity expands its food pantry, clothing assistance for people getting back into the work force, pharmaceutical assistance, and furniture pick-up, repair and sales, it has other needs to be met, such as the need for an elevator that will allow everyone access to the Baxter Avenue building’s second floor.
The nonprofit organization’s $630,000 2016 budget isn’t possible without grants from groups like the St. Mary’s Legacy Foundation, United Way of Greater Knoxville, Variety of East Tennessee, the Gene & Florence Monday Foundation, the TJX Foundation, Food Lion Charitable Foundation, Blanche Walsh Charity Trust, Weiss Foundation, Ladies of Charity USA, Combined Federal Campaign, and the Akima Club.
The Ladies of Charity also relies on business and corporate donors as well as individual donors. ■