Heart Ministry Center
Giving People The Opportunity To Make Choices For Themselves
BY MARY LEE HARVEY DIRCKS
Heart Ministry Center (HMC), at 2222 Binney Street, lessens the disparity between available income and necessary expense with extra doses of dignity, respect and applicable solutions. “We provide food, clothing, and medical care—all as carrots to dangle out there to get people in,” says John Levy, the center’s executive director. “Our goal once we get you in here and meet your immediate needs is to figure out how to address those underlying issues.”
The Center’s staff and volunteer team covertly meet people where they are, by making their experience at Heart Ministry Center as pleasant as possible, with movies to watch and cookies, bagels, donuts and coffee while they wait. “We’re going to take your groceries to your car for you. If you don’t drive, that’s fine, we’ll drive you home,” says Levy. The purpose is to prolong interaction and get to know people and help them feel comfortable to talk about what’s going on in their lives and how HMC staff can help them get to a place of self-sufficiency. That is, if they want help,” Levy stresses. “Some people are OK with how things are and just need a little extra food at the end of the month. That’s fine too.”
The HMC tagline states: We believe in the dignity of all. “That means giving people choices for more than just food, but it is actually seeing what people need and what their dreams are, not what our dreams are for them,” Levy points out. The Heart Ministry Center strives to give people an opportunity to make those choices for themselves by offering a variety of services, programs and experiences.
The community volunteer program utilizes 20 to 30 client volunteers on any given day as an opportunity for them to develop and practice good employment skills. It’s a high-stress environment, with more than 200 families cycling through the pantry, clothing closet or medical clinic in a day. Clients who volunteer in the job training program put in from 20 to 40 hours a week and call if they can’t make it to explain why—just like they would have to for a job, according to Levy. “If you can be that good of a volunteer, we have enough places that we can send you (for paid employment), but we want to be able to vouch for you first,” he says. Levy not only vouches for good volunteers, he also provides transportation when possible. The center pays to refurbish donated vehicles to give to clients, making more employment options possible.
The Center offers educational classes across the board on topics from financial literacy to domestic violence awareness to job training 101, Levy adds. The first step to prepare clients to look for employment is to introduce basic computer skills. Individuals are then guided through the process of developing a resume, deciding what types of jobs they are interested in and looking at what jobs are available in those areas. “Then, let’s do mock interviewing. And those are the people who will probably be in our volunteer program if they want to get a job with somebody we know,” Levy says, “or they can always find something on their own. Our goal is not to just get somebody employed, but to make sure they are employable.”
The Pathways Self-Sufficiency Program specifically reaches out to low-income single mothers. One-on-one counseling and mentorship, along with educational sessions, enable women to break the cycle of poverty, stabilize their home lives and reach self-sufficiency. Again, Levy reiterates that programs at HMC are individualized to help people move in the direction that they want to go and to address the circumstances unique to each participant. Some women choose to go straight into full-time employment after completing the program, while others pursue academic advancement. Some program participants attend College of Saint Mary or Bellevue University, while others attend Xenon Academy to study cosmetology, Levy says. He attributes the program’s 90 percent success rate to its individualized approach and ability to assist with obstacles and underlying issues along the way.
Levy is also quick to refer clients to other organizations if there is a better fit for a given situation. “We want to fill the niche,” he says “We don’t want to duplicate if someone else already has a good program.” For example, if someone calls asking to sign their son up for the Center’s mentoring program geared toward at-risk boys, Levy refers them to Big Brothers/Big Sisters or Team Mates. “They’re doing a good job getting those kids connected. We want to sign up the kids in our program who don’t have a parent or guardian calling for them. That’s our goal—to fill the little niches rather than be directly competitive.”
Levy appreciates the freedom to provide services and programs that are specific to the needs of the Center’s clientele without the limitations of government funding. HMC was founded in 1982 by Sacred Heart Catholic Church to meet the increased needs of parishioners and has grown to now serve more than 8,000 people monthly.
“Our singular focus is doing what is best for our clients,” Levy says. He estimates that donations from large area foundations provide one-third to 40 percent of the Center’s budget, which goes specifically to programs, while another 25 percent is raised via the annual Holy Smokes BBQ fundraiser, which attracts more than 700 people. The rest is supported by individual contributions and donations. Levy’s philosophy is that when you do good work, the money follows. “The important thing is for us to just do good work. That’s why we are here,” he says.