Small clients, big need

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Vivian Poole, a volunteer for Arlington diocesan Catholic Charities' Baby Needs Closet, received a phone call a while ago from a woman who had been living in a hotel with her baby. The mother had used up all the diapers she could afford and then had gone through the hotel towels.

Unable to meet her baby's basic needs, the woman was heartbreakingly distressed, said Poole, who also works as a human resources assistant for Catholic Charities.

The Baby Needs Closet is located in Fredericksburg inside the St. Faustina Conference of St. Vincent de Paul food pantry, supported by St. Matthew Church in Spotsylvania. It was started last March to help such needy mothers obtain essential items, like diapers, for their infants free of charge.

With a few exceptions, Northern Virginia generally has a poverty rate in the single digits, with poverty defined as individuals making less than $11,945 a year and a family of four making $23,283 a year. There are areas that have much higher rates, however, including the city of Fredericksburg, with more than 16 percent of residents living below the poverty level, according Feeding America, a nonprofit domestic hunger-relief charity.

With high rates of poverty, food takes precedence over everything else, including often pricey baby items, said Sherri Longhill, Catholic Charities emergency assistance regional coordinator.

Besides the center, Longhill said she knows of no other place in the region that gives out free, new baby items.

Along with diapers, the Baby Needs Closet provides wipes, baby shampoo, cream, infant formula, sippy cups, toys and some clothing.

"The response (to the closet) has been tremendous," said Longhill, with families coming from as far away as Colonial Beach and King George County to obtain essentials for their babies. All clients are "well below the poverty level," she said.

The closet is open Fridays from 11:30 to 12:30 p.m. and by appointment. Poole, who recruits and organizes a group of dedicated volunteers, said they don't have enough supplies to keep it open longer, but she hopes eventually to extend the hours.

Due to the support of parishes in the area, the small closet - just 100 by 100 feet - is a big blessing to the families who visit it.

Area parishes provide the backbone of the outreach. St. Matthew; St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, St. Patrick and St. Jude in Fredericksburg; and St. William of York in Stafford have helped stock the shelves and get the word out about the ministry, said Longhill.

Father Paul M. Eversole, pastor of St. Matthew, has been especially supportive. He has promoted the Baby Needs Closet at ministry fairs, and the parish paid for additional closet shelving.

Holy Cross Academy in Fredericksburg had a Christmas drive that raised a thousand dollars' worth of diapers for the closet. And a "baby shower" in Stafford brought in numerous items and monetary donations.

The Chancery in Arlington also held a successful drive on Father's Day last year.

Longhill said the closet is part of the overall work of emergency assistance - helping those in crisis due to unemployment, sickness or other struggles.

"To be able to minister to people like this is just helping the most vulnerable among us," she said.

"We must help because we are Catholic," added Poole. "I've learned to look at those people and see Christ - especially the babies, who are so innocent."

Catholic Charities is supported by funds from the Bishop's Lenten Appeal.

How to help

The Baby Needs Closet needs donations, especially diapers and formula. To donate, call 703/841-3834 or send a check to Catholic Charities, 200 N. Glebe Rd., Suite 506, Arlington, VA 22203 and write "Baby Closet" in the memo line.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014