By Kelly Medinger
Baltimore-area nonprofits are turning bright ideas into bold initiatives for social good
How many times do we have a bright idea, but push it aside for reasons like, “it’s too much work,” or “it’s never going to fly”? Well, some nonprofits here in Baltimore have ignored these excuses and turned their bright ideas into bold initiatives… all for the betterment of our city. I had the pleasure of visiting a few of these organizations this past month, and I’d like to share some stories of their innovation and good work with you.
Note: One important thing I learned from reflecting on these visits is that bright ideas don’t always require money. In fact, most (if not all) of the examples here occurred without any money ever changing hands.
Story #1: Fishing and farming to feed the hungry
At the Franciscan Center’s “State of the Center” breakfast, I learned about two innovative partnerships that they’ve forged to help feed the hungry.
The Franciscan Center, a ministry of the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, serves more than 100,000 hot healthy meals every year to people in crisis. Several months ago the Center’s Executive Director, Christian Metzger, got a call from an area foundation that is a generous supporter of the Center’s mission, suggesting that he contact the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology (IMET) in downtown Baltimore about a possible collaboration. IMET reported having tons of fresh and salt water fish they would use for research, and that there was ample demand from high-end restaurants to purchase the fish when the Institute no longer needed them. But IMET’s mission isn’t to sell fresh fish to expensive restaurants, so they asked Christian a question: “Could you use the fish from IMET to feed your guests?”
It was a great idea, but there were some roadblocks. Chief among them, how to clean and dress hundreds of pounds of fish at once when the Franciscan Center’s kitchen is small (in both physical size and number of staff). So Christian called the School of Culinary Arts at Stratford University in Baltimore and asked, “Could your students clean and dress a few hundred pounds of fish from IMET, a couple of times a year? The answer was yes, the School was happy to run “fish week” whenever the time was right. As a result, the Franciscan Center will receive this fresh, high quality protein ready to cook!
Then along came another innovative partnership. The Shrine of St. Anthony in Ellicott City, run by the Franciscan Friars, has a large property with 310 acres of rolling hills, woodlands, and farmland. About 85 acres are currently leased to a cash crop farmer. The Friars have generously agreed to set aside five acres of this farmland for the Franciscan Center, where they will grow vegetables for the Center’s dining and food pantry programs. A sign on the property will advertise this collaborative partnership between Franciscan organizations. There are also plans to engage the University of Maryland Agricultural Center, which is adjacent to the property, and recruit volunteers from St. Louis Church in Clarksville, the nearest Catholic parish, to help with the upkeep of the new Franciscan Center Farm.
Story #2: Word searches, table toppers, and recycling pick-up to employ adults with autism
Itineris (the Latin word for journey) is an organization in Baltimore that serves adults with autism. All 60 of their clients are working (75% of them are getting paid), but that’s not the most impressive aspect of their program. All 60 of their clients are working in jobs they want to do. Itineris boasts just as many job sites as clients and doesn’t “track” their clients into specified fields based on job availability. Rather, they work with each individual to find their passion, and then turn that passion into productive activity.
When I visited Interis’ home at The Pointe on Rockrose near TV Hill, I saw first-hand how enthusiastic they are about turning a client’s passion into work. One example is word searches. Itineris has a client who is gifted at making customized word searches. He has even published a book with creatively-themed searches! The fun part is that this person is available for hire. Do you want to add a word search to your wedding gift bags? How about as a placemat at your next family reunion? Or printed on the back of your Christmas newsletter? The options are endless.
I also witnessed several artistic Itineris clients assembling table toppers for a fundraising gala. They were beautiful and were customized according to the theme and colors for the big event. Another Itineris client showed a penchant for sorting. “He can sort anything!” his caseworker proclaimed. They worked with him to create a recycling business where he picks up recyclables from local businesses, sorts them, and turns them in by the pound for profit.
Story #3: Expanding to serve both East and West Baltimore
I was delighted to take part in a recent celebration for Caroline Center, looking back at their 20 years of service to educate women for sustainable careers. Sister Patricia McLaughlin, SSND, made an exciting announcement at the event: Caroline Center will open a new permanent location on the old Gibbon’s High School property on Baltimore’s West Side next year. In the meantime, they will offer classes for certified nursing assistants and geriatric nursing assistants (CNA/GNA) in a temporary (and rent-free) space at St. Agnes Hospital.
After the death of Freddie Gray, Caroline Center reflected on its mission to offer a life-changing education and career skills training to women and felt there was a calling to expand their reach in the city. The School Sisters have had a presence in East Baltimore for nearly a century-and-a-half, and now their work will expand to the West Side as well.
In sum, our Baltimore-area nonprofits do an incredible job turning bright ideas for partnerships, employment, and expansion into bold initiatives for the betterment of our community. It is a privilege to work amongst these great organizations and to have this opportunity to share these small but meaningful snippets of their stories with you.