The Johns Hopkins Gazette: October 26, 1998
Oct. 26, 1998
VOL. 28, NO. 9


Reaching Out to the Community

Sean Hackett sees firsthand how United Way dollars help the city

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Before construction began on the new Cancer Research Building in East Baltimore, Sean Hackett (pictured at right) and his fellow employees on the eighth floor of Wilmer had an unobstructed view of downtown and the Inner Harbor.

But even with the new structure taking away some of the scenery, from almost anywhere on his floor Hackett can't help but notice the city that lives and breathes beneath him--both the parts that shine and those that have fallen on hard times.

Hackett, a senior research technician at the Wilmer Eye Institute, admits that when he moved to the area from Charlottesville, Va., seven years ago it was a bit of a culture shock to see the city's pockets of dense poverty. Hackett and his family were used to seeing evidence of poverty back home, he says, but it was of the more rural sort, spread out over miles of farmland.

"Here the poverty is around you everywhere," Hackett says. "Especially here around Hopkins there is such a need for help."

So he and his wife, both of whom Hackett says were very attuned to their new situation, decided they wanted to do something about these troubled areas. But what?

"Lots of times it's difficult to know where to start," he says. "If you're lucky, things will just fall in your lap."

For Hackett, things did.

A regular patron of St. Isaac Jogues Church in his hometown of Carney, Hackett three years ago noticed a flier advertising that the church was collecting food and clothing for a day shelter for homeless people. The flier said that people were needed to bring the goods down to Christopher Place in East Baltimore and, since Hackett worked in the city, he volunteered.

Christopher Place was opened in 1984 and for its first 11 years operated as a day shelter where homeless people were given hot meals and a chance to clean up and make phone calls. But not long after Hackett started his volunteer work, Christopher Place became the Christopher Place Employment Academy, which attempts to turn around the lives of homeless men in Baltimore.

The Christopher Place Initiative, a 12-month interactive and intensive program coordinated by the facility, enrolls a maximum of 32 homeless men at a time. Each individual agrees to a contract stipulating that he will be alcohol- and drug-free. Participants are tested randomly for substance abuse, and any breech of the contract means immediate removal.

During the first part of the program, participants live in the building, where counselors provide individualized support for both employment and sobriety. During the second phase, participants work with counselors to secure employment, locate independent housing and return to the community. Follow-up support includes monitoring to ensure long-term success and stability.

Hackett says his first year of volunteer work at Christopher Place consisted mainly of dropping off goods at the facility once a week. Since then, he has taken on more responsibility by coordinating his church's effort to obtain food, clothes, furniture and household goods.

"It's just overwhelming how much stuff people will bring when given the opportunity," says Hackett. "I own a small pick-up truck, and usually the back is filled with food and clothing." During a three-month period last year, he says, 41 bags of groceries were delivered to Christopher Place.

Hackett also recalls a recent furniture drive to furnish the program participants' new apartments. He left his truck at the church and told people to just leave the furniture there for when he got back. He was amazed by the results.

"It was like somebody had taken a whole living room and left it," Hackett says. "We needed several trucks and several trips to get all the stuff back to Christopher Place."

For his part, Hackett says he derives much satisfaction from his volunteer work, partly because he believes so much in the goals of the employment program.

"This program really works. It doesn't just maintain these guys, it transforms them," Hackett says. "It makes them not just effective citizens, but by the value systems that they have gained, they are probably better citizens than the average person, because now they understand what it's like to be on the bottom and be overlooked."

Mario Berninzoni, assistant director of Christopher Place, says that volunteers like Hackett are essential to the future success of the facility. The center currently has 15 full- and part-time employees, but much more manpower is needed to make Christopher Place work, Berninzoni says.

"It's really important. For instance, we rely on volunteers to serve all of our dinners, and about 80 percent of our food has been donated," Berninzoni says. "Sean is a big part of that. He fills a special need for us. The program wouldn't work without volunteers."

In addition to his volunteer work, Hackett earmarks a portion of his United Way contribution to Christopher Place, which is almost solely funded through the Catholic Charities of Baltimore. Hackett suggests that, if they can, those giving money to the 1998 Hopkins United Way Campaign should visit the particular charity to which they are giving. "You can see how much good your money is doing," Hackett says.

Both Hackett and Berninzoni say that at Christopher Place more money is needed for cleaning supplies, perishable food, upgrades for computer equipment and the building's upkeep. Also, additional staff or volunteers are needed to act as tutors or mentors for the program's students.

Hackett also urges that people who are in a hiring position consider Christopher Place graduates, whose successful completion of the 12-month program is marked by a ceremony with a valedictory speech.

"It is so uplifting to hear these guys talk about their lives and how they have changed," Hackett says.

He remembers in particular one class valedictorian who gave a rather stirring speech about how he had gone from having a sense of powerlessness and a lack of self-worth to finding out just how much control he had over his life.

"We need to break the cycle of [these men] returning to the street," Hackett says. "And when others see how these graduates have transformed themselves, it is a guide [to them] that they can do it as well."

We're marching to the top!


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