Giving From The Heart | By Ismael Hernandez

Recently I joined the board of directors of a local non-profit organization, St. Martin de Porres Ministries. I met the ministry’s founders years ago while they were distributing food to the poor in an inner-city area of Fort Myers. Out of the back of a pickup truck in a parking lot, Mercedes and Fernando Castillo, their children, and a couple of volunteers packed bags of donated food and gently handed it to people waiting in line. There was never a lack of a loving handshake _JLW0417 size mainor a heartfelt embrace.

Most of the time, those waiting in line were Hispanic migrants, with a sprinkle of other ethnicities. Most were women and many of them were there with infants. Why would this humble family take time to do this? I wondered. I found it remarkable that they engaged their children in the process and they all seemed to be having a great time.

People noticed their efforts and rewarded them. Soon, ladies from local churches began to join them and helped them find resources. They understood that their loving efforts needed a structure, piety needed technique. Eventually, the Castillos were able to purchase a building and they are now expanding their services to the community.

Here you have a very humble family receiving no salary and dedicating a good portion of their lives to help others. They became a virtuous magnet whose pull was love. I often take the time to ponder about the meaning of social life after I encounter people like Mercedes and Fernando. I question the way we try to solve problems with “experts” or create huge bureaucracies of compassion within our churches that become feel-good alternatives to an encounter that grows systemically, from the heart.

I’m not trying to judge negatively here. Every person I have ever encountered who is trying to do something for others has always inspired me in some way. Even those whose technique might need some “tweaking” or whose only involvement is to write the occasional check ought to be commended, supported, and encouraged. But our resources are wasted at times because we reject the first principle of what I call the Human Flourishing Model: simplicity.

The Castillos found out that I was offering training on “effective compassion” at a local church and attended. I could see their excitement at the concepts and told me how they have been trying to move in the direction of helping people help themselves for a long time but simply did not know how. I could see the spark in their eyes as they spoke of being able for the first time to articulate what they have felt some time—they knew there was a missing link somewhere but did not know how to identify it and fill the void.

After a few weeks, I was about to begin another Effective Compassion Training session at a different church and I saw the Castillos coming again! They went through the entire training twice. They invited me to join their board and I was delighted. While I am very busy growing the Freedom & Virtue Institute, I just could not say no. My heart remains, after all, the heart of an activist.

Today, the entire board consisting of the same humble ladies with their husbands and a few other good people, is making big plans to transform the ministry into one that remains committed to providing a loving support to people in need; yet, now with a vision of human flourishing that is challenging the way we view the poor. Together we are showing that massive distributions of goods might be only a first step into a different type of service.

We are planning to use adjacent land to start a farm with areas dedicated to each family who regularly comes for food. If they want to continue to receive donated food they will have to tend the garden (Genesis 2:15). Through the help of a few donors, the children in each family will also work the plot with their parents and earn money that will go into a BB&T bank account. The bank account will be a dedicated account to help the children earn money for educational purposes such as school supplies, a backpack, uniforms, and the like.

These are just baby steps but very important ones. These steps are consistent with right order but informed by a profound love for the poor. And I could not be more overjoyed.

Ismael Hernandez is the founder of the Freedom and Virtue Institute.

We Can Help Refugees in Our Communities| A Conversation with Julia Camenisch

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This week we had the chance to speak with PovertyCure partner Julia Camenisch of Journey Home, an organization for empowering refugees, especially women in North Carolina. With the current landscape for refugees, we feel that it’s important to highlight voices from organizations that are having a profound impact on the displaced populations in their communities. Our goal being to share knowledge in a way that we can learn from each other as we have a conversation around how best to help those living in material poverty around the world. Julia’s passion for working with refugees is contagious and it is our hope that you enjoy and learn as much from this interview as we did!

PovertyCure: How does your organization engage the flow of refugees?

Julia Camenisch: We mainly rely on word of mouth. The refugee ladies in our program tell others in their refugee communities about us, and those referrals keep us with a full waiting list for students! We also partner with other refugee service organizations, and through them are connected with families who need help. As an organization, we mainly focus on providing skills training and economic development opportunities, but we’ve also got volunteers who adopt and help refugee families by providing rides, reading mail, helping find clothes, pay bills, etc. There’s SO much more need then we can keep up with though. I wish we could recruit more volunteers!

PovertyCure: What services do you provide?

Julia: As our volunteers have adopted families, we’ve heard the same question over and over again, “How do I get a job?” As our focus is on refugee women, moms in particular, we realized that they especially struggle with finding jobs with hours that will allow them to also care for their children. In response to this, we started a sewing training program that teaches these moms to learn to sew, then helps them establish a home sewing studio and finally, provides a market for their goods so they can earn an income while they’re at home with their kids!

PovertyCure: Is there a typical story that you see/hear from the people you serve

Julia: The refugee families we serve are often somewhat cut off from Americans. They’re resettled in low-income neighborhoods which are often also high in crime and not very “neighborly” to immigrants. These refugees are rarely ever invited into an American home or have American friends, other than through the aid organizations. Part of the problem is that they struggle to learn English and are often shy about talking to Americans!

PovertyCure: With what other agencies/organizations are you collaborating?

Julia: We work with local organizations, such as Project658, Charlotte Awake, Refugee Support Services, and Gateway to Employment, Carolina Refugee Resettlement Agencies, and Catholic Charities just to name a few.

PovertyCure: If you could direct media attention to any specific dimension of the “refugee issue” what would it be?

Julia: There’s so much more to the refugee crisis than just resettling people. We’ve got to help them integrate into the communities into which they’re resettled! And this isn’t something governments can make happen. Americans have to realize that this is their responsibility – plenty of people feel sorry for the refugees trapped in Europe – which they should – but that compassion doesn’t translate into help for the refugees already living in their own communities.

PovertyCure: How do we best go about forming long-term sustainable solutions to poverty among displaced populations?

Julia: Training in marketable skills and building partnerships with employers who will work with people with limited English skills and will give them a chance. Along with that, we need mentors who will walk alongside individuals to help them integrate into communities and will connect them with opportunities. I think the church, at least in America, has really failed in this regard.

PovertyCure: How can our local churches act?

Julia: There are plenty of refugee organizations who just need volunteers! The church needs to find the like-minded refugee aid groups in their community and partner with them. Church leadership also should present the needs to their congregation. And the Church needs to realize that handouts solve nothing and instead begin to develop mentorship based approaches to helping refugees, like those offered by Jobs for Life and other such groups.


Julia Camenisch is the Director for Journey Home, an organization for empowering refugees, especially women, in North Carolina.