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. 


Project Joseph at the Cathedral

Project Joseph at the Cathedral

Above, members of the Project Joseph team tend to St. Agnes Cemetery in late summer 2016.

Our Project Joseph team works on a wide variety of jobs throughout the county. They do maintenance and renovations at Catholic Charities properties, repair stones in cemeteries, remove snow at vacant properties and more. Last week, though, they were assigned a special, last minute task. Retired Syracuse Bishop James Moynihan had passed away, and the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception needed to be in top shape for his funeral.

The challenge? The cathedral is undergoing extensive renovations. Last week they were in the midst of repainting the ceiling. There was scaffolding reaching up to the 50 foot vaulted ceilings and drop cloths across the floor. There was dust coating everything, and the Diocese was expecting a full house on Friday the 10th (including 100 priests and 8 bishops).

Between Monday the 6th and Thursday the 9th, seven Project Joseph team members assisted the painters in dismantling their scaffolding and then carrying planks, ramps and tarps out of the cathedral. They stayed on to dust the pillars and pews and mop the floor.  The job was mostly complete by Wednesday afternoon, leaving one day for fine tuning before the cathedral filled to honor Bishop Moynihan on Friday.

The Project Joseph team will continue to be part of the cathedral renovation, which started up again on Monday after the team carried back in the planks, tarps and ramps. They’re vital to Phase II of the construction, which includes pulling up the floor to install a new heating system. Most of the crew members who are part of this work are Nepalese refugees.

Project Joseph was proud to be part of preparing the cathedral for this special mass. The team looks forward to continuing to play a role in the renovation of the Diocese’s mother church.

Grocery Cart Dinner – A Special Meal at the Men’s Shelter

Grocery Cart Dinner – A Special Meal at the Men’s Shelter

Above, two staff members wait by the back entrance to assist volunteers.

Many nights at our Men’s Shelter, hot meals arrive piled high in the backs of vans and cars driven by dedicated volunteers. The meals are provided by volunteers who generously donate their own time and resources to help our residents.

Last Sunday, dinner arrived not in the back of a car, but in a grocery cart.

The grocery cart was pushed by Miss Sandra and her three grandchildren. Miss Sandra, a local resident, called our shelter staff early in the day to ask how many men were staying because she wanted to cook them dinner.  She spent the day making enough for roughly 60 men. Late in the afternoon, she discovered that a family member needed the car she’d planned on using. Still determined to deliver, she found a shopping cart and loaded it up. She then rounded up her three grandchildren and together they pushed the cart half a mile through slushy city streets to the shelter.

The men's shelter during the day, awaiting arrivals
The men’s shelter during the day, awaiting arrivals

Last Sunday night was miserable. It was cold and snowing and the streets were a mess. This family still carried through with their efforts and they made a big impression on our residents, who thanked them profusely as Miss Sandra took charge of the shelter floor for the evening, shooing help away as she served out the meal.

We are always grateful for the generous support we receive from groups and individuals in the community. There are so many moments that are deserving of special recognition, but we know that’s not what motivates our volunteers to help. So, to all of our quiet supporters – thank you for giving, as Miss Sandra did,  so generously of your time and resources to help us serve the community. It is deeply appreciated.


Posted by Bridget Dunn, Communications Coordinator

An Afternoon in the Kitchens

An Afternoon in the Kitchens

“You like fattoush?”

“Hm? Fa…ttua?

“Fattoush,” said Victor. As explanation, he offered a bowl of mixed vegetables and fried pita chips.

“Oh, sure, thanks!”

It is a treat to be invited down to the kitchens at the House of Providence on a day like last Thursday, when the CASS students were working on dishes from their home countries. CASS (Culinary Arts for Self-Sufficiency) is a program that provides training in industrial culinary skills for people who face significant obstacles to employment such as recent refugee status or generational poverty. The class last Thursday was made up of recent refugees. They were preparing a meal for their graduation ceremony the next day, when their family and friends would join them to celebrate their completion of the program.

The ingredients list for the graduation meal.
The ingredients list for the graduation meal.

The CASS program is a 5-week course. It includes kitchen safety, food prep skills and ServSafe Certification upon graduation. Most of the lessons cover the sort of food skills you need in an industrial kitchen or local deli. Students make tuna and egg salad, learn how to slice meat for a deli and are trained in proper sanitizing.  They even practice taking and fulfilling orders and run the kitchen as a deli for House of Providence employees.

One dish was stuffed veggies and grape leaves. it required several sets of hands to cook, empty and then stuff the various veggies.
One dish was stuffed veggies and grape leaves. it required several sets of hands to cook, empty and then stuff the various veggies.

Graduation dinner was a chance for the students to create their own menu and they clearly enjoyed preparing foods from their home countries. Gary Coe, the instructor, was amused by the change of roles as the students taught him their own dishes, though he found the experience of shopping for all of the spices a little frustrating.

“Look at this!” Gary said, picking up a small spice container from the many on the counter. “You wouldn’t believe how much this was.”

“It is not so expensive at home,” Geni, a student, said as she stuffed an onion skin.


“No. But you buy in market. Grind at home.”

“Oh,” Gary said with a shrug. “Well, it was expensive but, then, I’m glad ‘grind all the spices’ wasn’t on the to-do list.”

Students form an assembly line to stuff vegetables.
Students form an assembly line to stuff vegetables.

Many of the students were clearly experienced cooks. A few mentioned that a dish was a particular favorite of a family member, or a regular staple at home. They enjoyed explaining the process and offered visitors samples of finished dishes.

A perfectly stuffed grape leaf.
A perfectly stuffed grape leaf.

The five students in the class were from five different countries. They chatted and negotiated the kitchen space in a mix of shared Arabic and English. Gary relied on the more proficient English speakers to translate when they got into a language jam, but the operation in general was smooth.

Students carefully stack stuffed vegetables, enough for the 20-30 guests expected at their graduation.
Students carefully stack stuffed vegetables. They’ve prepared enough for the 20-30 guests expected at their graduation.

The program has been very successful with an 88% job placement rate for graduates. The opportunities made possible by the program help lift families out of the poverty many struggle with after first arriving in the U.S. Many go on to food service jobs, but others take jobs in hospitality or a related industry, buoyed up by the references our instructors can give them.

The final (unfinished) product awaits another round on the stove.
The final (unfinished) product awaits another round on the stove.

For more information about this program or to learn about hiring graduates, contact Cody Maggi at or 315.362.7551.

With Open Arms and Blooming Flowers

Our staff at our women and children’s shelter provide critical support to people who arrive in unhappy circumstances. they make sure everyone is properly clothed, fed and sheltered. With guests ranging from infants to adult women, the range of needs are broad. The kids require a constant supply of diapers, baby food and safety gear. The women need support getting back on their feet, including employment assistance, housing assistance and more. Our staff are there to make sure these needs are met.

But who supports the supporters? A wonderful, generous array of donors and volunteers. We couldn’t do our work without them. One of the places where donor and volunteer support is particularly evident is the gardens at our women and children’s shelter. Not only do the gardens add beauty to the house, many of the plants grown are edibles which will be enjoyed by residents.

Take a stroll through the halls and gardens of the house in the gallery below. Our special thanks to the Brockway Farms Garden Club, Linda Mulrooney and all of the volunteers and staff who gave of their resources and time to make this lovely garden come together.


Posted by: Bridget Dunn, Communications Coordinator


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