Karina Navas, program director for Catholic Charities' Strong Families Initiative, speaks with a client about a new gang prevention program that will begin in August. (CS photo by Jaclyn Lippelmann)
Karina Navas, program director for Catholic Charities' Strong Families Initiative, speaks with a client about a new gang prevention program that will begin in August. (CS photo by Jaclyn Lippelmann)
At the Catholic Charities Center in Silver Spring, formerly named the McCarrick Center, the line often reaches out the door on Thursday mornings when Immigration Legal Services does intake for prospective clients on a first-come, first-serve basis.

In addition to these immigration services, the Catholic Charities Center offers what staff members call a “one stop shop,” where people can go to dental and medical clinics, to the family center, to the clothing closet, to the food pantry or to the Sanctuaries for Life program, which helps connect uninsured women to prenatal care, in order to meet a variety of needs in one place. The center, which has been in operation for about a dozen years, also hosts classes in English as a Second Language, parenting, financial stability and bank teller training, taught by both case mangers and volunteers.

In an effort to make these various services more visible to the community, the center’s name was recently changed to the Catholic Charities Center. The name change also came following recent allegations that retired Washington Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, while he was a priest and later a bishop in New York and then New Jersey decades ago, had engaged in abusive behavior with minors and seminarians.

A statement from the Archdiocese of Washington noted, “With renovations on the exterior of the property recently undertaken, the Catholic Charities name was added to more accurately reflect the provider of services and the social outreach and support which can be accessed.”

The staff and volunteers with Immigration Legal Services at the Catholic Charities Center help clients with various issues such as deportation proceedings, asylum cases, applications for citizenship, and petitions for family members. The attorneys walk with the clients each step of the way, helping them with paperwork and conducting practice interviews. 

For example, Jennifer Bibby-Gerth, the supervising attorney for Immigration Legal Services at the Catholic Charities Center, once represented a Jamaican woman who had a seizure disorder that led to cognitive disabilities. Though a long-term permanent resident, she thought that she could not become a citizen because she would be unable to pass the literacy test. But after speaking with Bibby-Gerth, she learned that the requirement could be waived, and Bibby-Gerth drove her to her citizenship interview, which she passed.

The Catholic Charities Center also houses several different emergency assistance programs. First, there is the Parish Partner Program, which is funded by the Archdiocese of Washington. Through that program, parishes refer parishioners who need help. In addition, there are two programs that take referrals from anyone in Montgomery County: the Montgomery County Family Center Program, which is run by Catholic Charities staff, and the Neighborhood Outreach Network, which is run by Montgomery County staff.

Through these programs, the center is able to help people sign up for benefits like food stamps and with problems such as getting evicted from their homes. In that situation, the case managers will work with the clients to find out the cause of their eviction, and work with them to address that issue. Although they do not have the resources to pay for all that is needed for keeping people in their homes, they will work with other organizations such as the Knights of Columbus to help provide the funds to deal with the immediate need of housing.

Housed in the same building, the dental clinic is open every day of the week, including evening hours on Monday and Wednesday for people who are unable to take time off of work. Dr. Lucciola Labruschini, the director of the dental clinic, noted that when they are providing dental services, they are helping people with more than just healthy teeth.

“The patients, sometimes they are in a very bad situation and they can’t afford (dental care). They have lost their front tooth – you know how important it is for your self esteem,” she said. “They really appreciate the work we do for them and it is really an impact overall to them, because it is not just filling the tooth. Especially front teeth make you feel better. You will talk, you can apply for a job.”

For the medical, dental, and legal services, as well as the prenatal care through Sanctuaries for Life, Catholic Charities offers the services at lower rates than private practices, and works with the clients to ensure that their finances are not a barrier to accessing important care, either through long term payment plans or pro-bono work for those cannot afford it.

The different programs work together to ensure that every need of their client is being met. For example, when the dental clinic is doing intake, they also do screening for some non-dental related issues, such as mental health. If they find that their client is exhibiting signs of mental health issues, they can refer them to the counseling services in the medical clinic.

When Sanctuaries for Life does their initial intake, they evaluate the women’s needs, such as if there are factors in her life that could lead her to having an abortion, whether it is a medically high-risk pregnancy, or whether she is having financial problems affording the care.

Often the women are referred to them from a pregnancy center, and Michelle Williams, the program manager for Sanctuaries for Life, said that once a mother has made the decision to carry her baby to term, they try to meet with her right away to let her know that they are ready to support her, because “those first few hours are critical.”

Based on what they find, they determine the next steps. They accompany women throughout their pregnancy, helping them to get connected with prenatal care and checking in with them along the way. Another staff member will focus on helping her meet immediate needs such as maternity clothes, housing, and food. Even if they determine that a woman is not qualified to receive certain services, they try to help out with as much as they can, Williams said.

Sanctuaries for Life recently received an urgent call from a partner agency about a mom who had scheduled an abortion because she fell through the cracks of Medicaid and did not have any money for prenatal care. They met with her within 24 hours of the phone call and set up care for her.

That client later wrote about Sanctuaries for Life, saying, “This has been a very challenging time for me. SFL made me feel safe and provided the services and support I desperately needed.”

Once the woman has had her baby, Sanctuaries for Life gives her a baby bag that includes all of the essentials needed for bringing a baby home from the hospital, and offers a post-partum check up. After that, the woman is welcome to call them if she has any other needs they could help with. They also often refer mothers to the family center, where they can receive ongoing support for their family life.

 “I believe if we can walk alongside her, giving her support, letting her know that we are just not here emotionally or physically, but we can provide the food, we can provide utility assistance…It has to be a safety net that can provide for that support, and I believe with that support she will definitely say yes (to having her baby),” Williams continued.

Deacon Jim Nalls, the executive director of Catholic Charities’ Family, Parish and Community Outreach Department, noted that there is a large presence of Hispanic families in the area around the center who turn to the Church for assistance when they need it.

“They all know us,” he said. “This is their place to go.”

Especially right now, when many of them have anxiety about immigration issues, Nalls said they are unlikely to go to the Montgomery County Courthouse in Rockville to get assistance, because they would feel unsafe. But due to the strong faith of the immigrant community, they do trust the Church, and the Catholic Charities Center is there to meet that need.

Just as it is often the faith of the clients that bring them to the Catholic Charities Center, it is the faith behind the organization that motivates the work that they do. Deacon Nalls noted that all Catholics have a baptismal call to serve others, and Catholic Charities is there to be a vehicle for that charity.

Since not everyone who receives the services is Catholic, Nalls quoted an oft-repeated phrase at Catholic Charities, “We don’t help people because they are Catholic, we help people because we are Catholic."