Each fall the university's Office of Purchasing asks a representative of a United Way-affiliated agency to address the staff. The experience is an opportunity to hear in detail how that particular organization is assisting community residents in need.
Mary Jane Rodriguez, an administrative assistant and small business coordinator, says the presentations are always "enlightening and touching," but four years ago, one of these sessions quite literally hit home for nearly all in attendance.
A representative of My Sister's Place, a day shelter in downtown Baltimore for homeless women and children, came to speak that year. The person portrayed the harsh realities of the people who walk through their doors--and of those not old enough to walk, who are brought into the center. The presentation, Rodriguez says, was a "very poignant moment" for an office whose ranks are virtually all women with children.
"I think that is why it had such an impact on us; it was a case of 'this could be you,'" Rodriguez says. "It was a very female, family-oriented group at the time, and still is. Hearing this person talk, I thought, You never know who will be next to need this type of service."
The staff were invited to tour My Sister's Place and were asked, if they could, to bring donations. The wish list they were given included everyday items such as shampoo, peanut butter, paper plates, towels and laundry detergent.
Darlene Foehrkolb, an office supply buyer, was part of a group that went down to the agency not long after the presentation. She and several other staff members brought with them, as requested, a box loaded with donations.
"We were all very touched seeing the women and children in this facility when we went down that day," says Foehrkolb, who made the initial contact. "It also made us wonder what happens after this for these people, since this is only a day shelter."
That first visit was the start of a tradition. Soon a box was placed in the office's lunch room as a drop-off for more needed items. Week after week the box quickly filled with donations, which Rodriguez and others would then load into Foehrkolb's Ford Thunderbird for delivery.
Items donated included everything from toothpaste and disposable diapers to clean socks and playpens. The response was so overwhelming, Rodriguez says, that the office soon grew out of the one box and graduated to multiple boxes and regular trips to My Sister's Place.
"People would just come up and ask, 'So when are you going down there again? We have more things for you,' " Rodriguez says. "Now it has gotten to the point where people don't really think about it. For instance, when I buy a six-pack of soap, I just instantly take one bar and save it for the donation."
My Sister's Place is a Catholic charity that has been in operation since 1980. The center provides breakfasts and shower and laundry facilities for women and children, in addition to life skills training and social casework management.
Debbie Jackson, associate director of Purchasing, says she had donated goods before, but often it was items dropped into an emotionless receptacle.
"When you go to My Sister's Place, you see the human side of the charity," Jackson says. "You can see for yourself the woman who will use that coat, or the child who will use the swing set you brought in. They see us, greet us and, most importantly, they thank us. I know the items we bring down are really appreciated."
Rodriguez says that for her, the sincere thank you's are what make her want to donate again and again.
The 18-person office today has 100 percent participation in the donation effort. Especially come spring time and the holiday season, when many people are cleaning out closets, Foehrkolb's trunk is often filled to the brim with goods, she says.
Rodriguez notes that people in her office have volunteered time and money to other United Way agencies, but the office has unofficially "adopted" My Sister's Place.
"Each year when agency representatives come to see us, you feel like signing up and volunteering. You are like, wow, I didn't know," she says. "But then, you're like, When am I going to get a chance to do this between now and the other 50,000 things I have to do? But our efforts for My Sister's Place are manageable; it is not something we have to think about every day. It is very easy to give to this program."
Foehrkolb says she never fails to be touched by those at the day shelter when she visits.
"There are times, like today, when you go down and see a toddler, and it makes you wonder about his future," Foehrkolb says. "I believe it would be worthwhile for anyone to go down and tour the facility. I think every person would be touched by it, just like we are."
To learn more about My Sister's Place, located at 123 W. Mulberry St., contact April Wright at 410-727-3523. Donations can be brought to the facility from 9 a.m to 3 p.m., Monday to Friday. The organization is currently in need of warm clothing, toiletry items and diapers of all sizes.
For more information on the JHU United Way campaign, logon to www.jhu.edu/~outreach/uway.