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Homework answers / question archive / John Litten is the executive director of the West Side Catholic Center in Cleveland

John Litten is the executive director of the West Side Catholic Center in Cleveland


John Litten is the executive director of the West Side Catholic Center in Cleveland. The center, which serves the homeless with hot meals, shelter and other social needs, is a recipient of one of this year's Cleveland City Champions awards. (Lisa DeJong/The Plain Dealer) Lisa DeJong/The Plain Dealer By Michael K. McIntyre, The Plain Dealer (Links to an external site.)This story is part of The Plain Dealer’s Cleveland City Champions series, which honors people and organizations that have done bold, innovative work to lift up a neighborhood or a community. The series was produced in partnership with The Guardian and with public broadcaster?Ideastream. To read about other Cleveland City Champions, go to (Links to an external site.)

  1. CLEVELAND, OHIO — It’s lunchtime at the West Side Catholic Center (Links to an external site.)on Lorain Ave. on Cleveland’s West Side and the Resource Center (Links to an external site.) is filling up.
  3. Volunteers, five women and two sophomores from the all-boys St. Ignatius High School across the street, set up the serving line with the chicken noodle casserole they made that morning.
  5. At the front desk, Paul Meshenberg acts like a maitre d’.
  6. “James, welcome, nice to have you back!” he says to a regular, who smiles in return.
  8. “Hello, are you taken care of?” he asks a newcomer. “We’re having lunch. Can you stay for lunch?”
  10. And then, to a woman in a gray hoodie, “Hello, Little Gray Riding Hood. Do you have time to eat?”
  12. Meshenberg is a specialist at making people feel comfortable. The clients — 130 to 140 on average for lunch, a few less for breakfast — are prized. In addition to meals, they can sign up for free haircuts or chess club, a reading circle or a clinic on how to obtain housing. They can have their mail delivered to the Resource Center.
  14. “I try to learn the names of every person here,” said Meshenberg, a new social worker at age 61, having gone back to school after retiring from a career in medical staffing. “Some people retire and have a cold one and watch people walk by. Good for them. I couldn’t stand that. This is work I can do for another 20 years and it’s a population I want to serve.”
  16. It’s a population, he says, that often is invisible.
  18. “They’re not acknowledged and treated as if they don’t exist. Here, they have an identity,'' he says.
  20. That sums up the mission of the West Side Catholic Center, launched in 1977 by pastors at local churches who were encountering hungry people on their doorsteps and decided to do something about it, collectively. The Sisters of St. Joseph ran the place, handing out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and, eventually, clothing.
  22. Census data compiled by the Center for Community Solutions (Links to an external site.) in Cleveland shows more than a third of residents and half of Cleveland’s children live in poverty. According to the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, 1 in 6 adults and 1 in 5 children in the Northeast Ohio region struggle with food insecurity. Cuyahoga County had the highest percentage of hungry people in the state and well over the national average.
  24. Eugene Arnwine, 78, eats lunch at the West Side Catholic Center in Cleveland. (Lisa DeJong/The Plain Dealer) Lisa DeJong/The Plain Dealer
  26. To meet that need, the center now provides 35,000 meals a year. But the need goes beyond hunger. The center also provides clothing, the Moriah House (Links to an external site.) shelter for homeless women and families, breakfast and lunch, a food pantry, workforce development programs, personal development such as yoga and mindfulness, and assistance to help people find or maintain housing and build family unity.
  28. “We have ample space and staff and volunteers to meet the needs of people coming to our door, and we seek to grow the part of our mission that talks about self-sufficiency,” said Executive Director John Litten, who took the helm two years ago.
  30. The newest addition to the WSCC roster, Ohio City Pizzeria (Links to an external site.), is a social enterprise restaurant opened by the nonprofit this summer. It employs clients and, it is hoped, will one day soon be a revenue generator.
  32. The two restaurant managers matriculated through another nonprofit in Cleveland, Edwins Leadership and Restaurant Institute (Links to an external site.), which trains ex-offenders for jobs in the culinary world. Chefs, waitstaff and dishwashers are all folks from the neighborhood.
  34. While workers on lunch break enjoy pizza and salads at Ohio City Pizzeria, a much larger crowd enjoys the chicken and noodles a block away in the West Side Catholic Center dining room.
  36. One crew serves them lunch while another group of volunteers sorts through donated clothing to hang on racks in the clothing store in front of the building. There is no cash register.
  38. “No client pays any fee for any service here. Never,” said Litten.
  40. As the name suggests, the West Side Catholic Center has Catholic roots. But it is not aligned with the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland nor is it an arm of Catholic Charities. It serves about 7,000 people per year with an annual budget of roughly $3 million, a third of which comes from government sources, a third from foundation grants and a third from donations.
  42. There are 50 full- and part-time employees and a roster of 200 regular volunteers who keep the place humming.
  43. “If we’re doing things right, everyone, us and the clients, benefit from the interaction,” said Litten. “It’s the Prayer of St. Francis: It is in giving that we receive.”
  45. Fran Kimble, a retired school librarian, was receiving praise and blessings as she filled paper plates with heaping portions of casserole at lunch one recent day. She was enjoying her time with the clients and her regular Thursday volunteer crew, five women who know each other from their shared service.
  47. “Instead of sitting around in my retirement, I want to help,” she said. “These people are all wonderful people.”
  49. Among those “wonderful people” enjoying lunch that day was Lucy Mary Griffin, who has been coming to the center for decades, sometimes for clothing for her and her 18-year-old son and sometimes for a meal.
  51. “They have fed my son and me and clothed us and loved on us. And we’ve met such great people,” said Griffin, who lives in a nearby apartment with her son, Emanuel, and subsists on a disability check.
  53. Volunteers serve up lunch at the West Side Catholic Center in Cleveland. (Lisa DeJong/The Plain Dealer) Lisa DeJong/The Plain Dealer
  55. Emanuel is a senior at Central Catholic High School in Cleveland and has dreams of attending college. At lunch that day, his mom was dressed in her business attire, as she hoped to speak with admissions folks at Notre Dame College about the possibilities.
  57. “Everybody doesn’t have to be homeless or on drugs to need help,” she said after she finished her lunch. “It feels so good just to be wanted, to be helped and to be loved.”
  59. Judy Kern has been director of programs at WSCC for 14 years. She loves the freedom the organization has to meet the needs of people in the community. It doesn’t bill Medicaid and, for the most part, isn’t tied to onerous requirements for delivering services.
  61. “It’s not a big bureaucracy. We see a need, we fill it,” she said.
  63. A child who saved half his peanut butter sandwich for his sister one day gave them the idea to send children home in the summer, when they’re not in school where lunch comes free because so many children are in poverty, with backpacks full of good things to eat. It’s now it’s up to 1,200 bags of food.
  65. There are also programs to deal with the trauma that comes from the distress of being poor.
  67. “I’ve got a yoga group, Reiki, gardening, writing. And now I’m starting a fishing group,” Kern said.
  69. To do that, she’ll need fishing rods. And they will come.
  71. “You ask for it and it shows up,” she said. “You ask for a volunteer and 200 hands go up. I can go downstairs right now and say I need two people to deliver a fridge to East Cleveland and they’ll say, ‘Where’s the truck?’ ”
  73. The overriding mission is to provide support for those who most need it.
  75. “We walk beside them. Take us with you on your journey. We are with you,” Kern said.
  77. The journey need not be a journey of a specific faith or any faith at all. Meshenberg, who welcomes guests for lunch, is an Orthodox Jew who can speak Arabic to clients of a nonprofit with “Catholic” in its name.
  79. Clients need make no profession of faith of any kind to be served.
  81. “We are Catholic in our founding,” said Litten. “But we serve everyone.”

Organization: West Side Catholic CenterCleveland credentials: It began in 1977 when local parishes saw a lot of hunger in the community. Nuns staffed the place and handed out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It’s now located on Lorain Avenue and W. 32nd Street, a block from the restaurant it now owns, Ohio City Pizzeria. Though Catholic in its founding and mission, it serves all and is not affiliated with Catholic Charities or the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland.Champion credentials: Serving more than 7,000 needy people each year, WSCC feed and clothes its clients and also offers a shelter for women and families, workforce development, help in finding housing and efforts to help people overcome the trauma that comes with being poor.

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