Helping, Fixing or Serving?

Helping, Fixing or Serving?

by Mike Melara, Executive Director

My daughter, who is majoring in Philosophy and Psychology at the University of Scranton, recently sent me an article by Rachel Remen.  I thought to myself, in my most condescending voice, “How cute of Juliana to send me this article.”  And then I read the piece.  And I was humbled.  Not by any significant revelation.  But more by the fact that the article describes how our staff, my staff, work every day at Catholic Charities.  Remen says, “Helping, fixing, and serving represent three different ways of seeing life.  When you help, you see life as weak.  When you fix, you see life as broken.  When you serve, you see life as whole.  Fixing and helping may be the work of the ego, but service is the work of the soul.”

We serve over 20,000 people every year at Catholic Charities, ranging in age from infants to senior citizens.  We work with those members of our community who are most vulnerable and in greatest need.  But it is the way we work with them that matters the most.  Remen nails it when she states,

“Service rests on the premise that the nature of life is sacred, that life is a holy mystery which has an unknown purpose.  From the perspective of service, we are all connected.  All suffering is like my suffering and all joy is like my joy.  Serving is different from helping.  Helping is not a relationship between equals.  A helper may see others as Mike Melara Headshot 2017weaker than they are, needier than they are, and people often feel this inequity.”  In the process of “helping” we may diminish the other’s self-esteem, their sense of worth, integrity or even wholeness.

At Catholic Charites, we share the same humanity as the people we serve.  We recognize ourselves in them.  Service is a relationship between equals.  And our service strengthens us as well as others.


Mike Melara is Executive Director of Catholic Charities of Onondaga County. 


In Response to Recent Comments about the Northside

In Response to Recent Comments about the Northside

Yesterday afternoon, shared Wendy Long’s response to criticism of her comments following a visit to the Northside of Syracuse on August 11. Ms. Long’s original commentary on the neighborhood included a series of inaccurate statements about the character of the neighborhood and the residents who live there.  Her response yesterday was in a similar vein. Ms. Long claims refugees enter this country without thorough screening, which is simply untrue.  Every person seeking refugee status undergoes a rigorous screening process carried out by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and various U.S. security agencies.  In fact, less than 1% of the global refugee population qualifies for refugee status after this process is complete.  We as an agency play no role in granting refugee status to individuals; our role is providing support for those who arrive here.

Catholic Charities believes that everyone—including people of every faith tradition—is worthy of dignity and respect.  Ms. Long’s comments deeply offend many individuals in our city and our core values as an agency.

We know the reality of challenges on the Northside. We live it every day as we work with residents and community members to ensure all individuals have their best chance at success. We know the enormous potential of recent refugees and all those we work with throughout Onondaga County.  Syracuse is a city with a proud immigrant heritage: Germans and Italians on the Northside, Irish, Polish and Ukranian in Tipperary Hill, and many other groups who have left indelible signatures on our region. We will continue to foster stability and independence for all individuals in Syracuse in all stages of life, as we have done since Catholic Charities of Onondaga County was established in 1923.

We applaud those neighbors, partners, organizations and elected officials, Mayor Minor and Congressman Katko, who have responded with dignity to Long’s uninformed and inflammatory comments. We appreciate their defense of the Northside and the refugee population in Syracuse.

Mike Melara

An Appreciation for the Game

An Appreciation for the Game

Above, youth at our Bishop Foery Foundation neighborhood center run in the backyard.

The dog days of summer.  This irrepressible heat reminds me of my boyhood growing up in Watertown, NY.  My friends and I would make our way to the local city park, Kostick’s field, to play sandlot baseball.  The first pitch was thrown somewhere around 9am and the last out was usually made around dinner time.

We were serious about “America’s pastime” and would make all types of adaptations to the game in order to play the game.  Not enough players?  Not a problem; we’d close left field and even center field.  If you hit into one of those fields, it was an automatic out.   Older kids had to hit opposite handed when playing against younger kids.  And there were no walks; either you hit the ball or struck out.  This rule could sometimes lead to what seemed to be an endless stream of pitches being offered up, with the batter lamenting “get one over the plate,” and the fielders drowning “take a swing!”  Games lasted anywhere from four innings to infinity… or at least it seemed that way.   There were no coaches or umpires.  We lived by the honor system and were ruled by the oldest and meanest kid on the field.

We learned a lot of lessons playing sandlot baseball.  If you’re waiting for me to say sportsmanship and team work, well, I guess there was some of that.  What we really learned was an appreciation for the game of baseball: how this sport could transform a dozen kids, all from different backgrounds, into organized teams with clear boundaries and purpose.  It wasn’t about being the best or worst athlete; it was simply about playing the game.

Bishop Foery Youth August 2016 (28)
A program participant (and his bunny ears) at Bishop Foery neighborhood center.

I recently visited one of our Catholic Charities neighborhood centers during the height of our summer program.  During the summer, Catholic Charities provides daily summer programming to over 1500 children living in some of the toughest neighborhoods in the city.  On this day, a group of adolescent boys were playing basketball.  They had made several adaptations: half court rules, teams were evenly divided based on size and age, and fouls were called on each other, with no disputes.  I was reminded of my own childhood and thankful that our agency can offer these youth a safe place to meet, recreate, play sports, and learn the value of friendship, team work and an appreciation for the game.  Not a bad gig.


Fighting Summer Hunger in Syracuse

Fighting Summer Hunger in Syracuse

Many of us look back on childhood summers as a time free from worry – no school, no homework, lots of sunshine and free time. Many of the great things CNY has to offer are in abundance when school’s out. There are great city pools, ice cream trucks, salt potatoes, lots of festivals and community events, and upwards of 15 hours of daylight.

Sadly, for a lot of the kids we serve, summer can be a time of stress, particularly due to lack of food. Outside of their school days, access to healthy meals can be very limited for children living in poverty. This is true around the country – 22 million kids in the US receive free or reduced price meals through the National School Lunch Program during the school year, but only 3.2 million of those kids are reached through the USDA Summer Food Service Program*.

staff member with kid at vincent houseWe and our peer organizations in Syracuse work to close this gap every week. We offer snacks and lunches to kids through summer programming at four of our locations in the city.

Of course, our summer support goes beyond snacks and meals. In our youth programs, kids have opportunities to play and learn in a healthy, supportive environment. We also offer respite programs for families with children with developmental disabilities, allowing families and caretakers a respite while providing integrated activities for the kids. For all the kids we serve, the summer weeks are punctuated with field trips out of their neighborhoods, including to local pools and beaches, museums, community events, the arts and more. Some are even sponsored to spend a week at Lourdes’ Camp.kid at a summer food program youth

Last year, nearly 1,500 children under the age of 18 were served by Catholic Charities’ youth centers. Imagine this – Grant Middle School on Syracuse’s Northside has just over 600 students**. That’s fairly typical for middle schools in our region. Our services reached the equivalent of two entire middle schools.

What that adds up to is a lot of kids in need all year. Our programs work together to meet the unique needs of the different seasons – meals in the summer, cold weather gear in the winter, toys at Christmas. Together we can work to make sure every child in our community has a chance to enjoy being a kid.


To support our summer programs, visit us online or call 315-362-7579.

*Summer Food Service Program. 2016. <>

**Receivership Quarterly Report. 15 April 2016. <;

Welcoming the Stranger

Earlier this month, Pope Francis released his “Amoris Laetitia.” This 256-page document is the Pope’s response to two synods – or assemblies – of bishops that have occurred during his tenure. Pope Francis calls throughout the document for more inclusion and less judgement. That theme runs right through the title: “Amoris Laetitia” is Latin for “The Joy of Love.”

There have been many responses to the document, but this summation from Cardinal Schönborn of Austria stood out to me: “No one must feel condemned. No one is scorned.”

This sentiment struck me because it speaks directly to our work here at Catholic Charities. Pope Francis is advocating what we strive to practice: meeting people where they are and assisting them without judgement.

We enact this throughout our programs. It is particularly evident in our crisis response programs which include our shelters, food pantries and relocation and homeless prevention services. We believe that basic building blocks of a stable life such as food and shelter must be in place before we can make progress helping a person overcome other obstacles to productive involvement in their community.   Every year our food pantries serve over 6000 people and provide shelter for over 1500 men, women and children in our shelters.

Our hospitality is made possible by your support. On behalf of the thousands of people we aid every year, thank you.

On Poverty in Syracuse

We commend for their ongoing series “The Cost of Poverty,” an in-depth look at poverty in Syracuse. For many in our community, these stories are an important introduction to the challenges of poverty. For many others – those among us whole live in poverty – these challenges are a daily reality.

Catholic Charities has been working to assist those in need in Syracuse since 1923. We know the numbers. Over a third of Syracuse residents are poor. Over 16,600 children in the city are poor. We know the struggle. Many people are willing and able to work, but are, through circumstance and lack of opportunity, unqualified for available jobs.  The challenges are daunting. Most importantly, however, we know from experience that dedicated people working together can make a positive difference for the most vulnerable among us. In doing so, we lift up the entire community.

Catholic Charities assists over 20,000 people annually. In 2014, we served more than 6,000 people at food pantries and fresh food giveaways. Over 4,500 children and teens benefited from education and enrichment programs at neighborhood centers, schools and libraries.  Through Project Joseph and our Culinary Arts for Self-Sufficiency Programs, we provide a path to employment for refugees and people who are homeless.  We help men, women and children overcome immediate crises such as homelessness, and we provide stability to the vulnerable by easing access to food and housing.  Ultimately, we seek to build the capacity of individuals to live independent lives and meaningfully contribute to their communities.

The awareness created by the “The Cost of Poverty ” series provides an important opportunity. Let us all, as a community, renew our commitment to fighting poverty by creating hope and transforming lives.

Mike Melara_sig

To learn more about Catholic Charities programs or to donate to our ongoing work, please visit

The Year of Mercy

As you may already know, Pope Francis has declared this year (December 8, 2015-November 20, 2016) as the Holy Year of Mercy. There is a deep spiritual and religious significance to the declaration of a Holy Year, and this particular year focuses on, among other things, the Corporal Works of Mercy. Some of us might need to dust off our Baltimore Catechism to reacquaint ourselves with the Corporal Works of Mercy. Or, you can Google them. In any event, there are seven of them and I’d like to concentrate on two which are very much part of our daily work at Catholic Charities: feed the hungry and shelter the homeless.
At our Catholic Charites Men’s Shelter, we work with an average of 120 homeless men every night. In addition to providing shelter, we also offer a meal to each of our guests. Most nights these meals are prepared by a cadre of volunteers representing different faith communities, churches, civic organizations and individuals who want to contribute in a meaningful way. I visited our shelter recently, and the volunteers serving the meal were from a Hispanic church located on the near west side of Syracuse. Beans, rice, bread and vegetables where in abundance, and our guest ate very well. The servers where students from Blodgett School, and they were happy to be able to offer the meal. There was no fanfare. No cameras. In fact, the shelter was exceptionally quiet as each man found more than a warm meal in the rice and beans. Pope Francis would have been proud.
When it comes to providing food at the shelter, we’re very fortunate to have faithful volunteers who on most nights provide the meals. That said, there are nights where the best we can do is offer a sandwich and hot coffee. There’s a saying for this in the shelter: “Sometimes you get the chicken and sometimes you get the feathers.”

In this Year of Mercy, let’s do our level best to serve more chickens and less feathers. Please get in touch If you are interested in serving a meal at our shelter or participating in one or more Corporal Works of Mercy Orientations for new volunteers are held the first and third Thursday of every month at the House of Providence, 1654 Onondaga Street in Syracuse. Please call or email Tina Thompson,,
315-424-1800 x7633 for more information and to register.