Clothes closet, food pantry works with more than 40 local agencies to provide vital support to families, especially during pandemic’s worst
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BLOOMFIELD HILLS — Since 1965, the Ladies of Charity of Oakland County have been quietly serving their community, offering much-needed assistance to the less fortunate and bolstering the efforts of local social workers.
Based on the campus of St. Hugo of the Hills Parish in Bloomfield Hills, the group run a clothes closet and food pantry that supplies groceries, clothing, hygiene items, household goods, children’s toys and books.
Members of the group are steadfast, said chapter president Leslie Swanson. Some of the ladies have been around for nearly 40 years.
“Our mission is to serve rather than be served, and we do this in humility, simplicity and charity,” Swanson told Detroit Catholic. “We share that concept with the national association.”
While the local association is just 55 years old, the international apostolate is much older. The Ladies of Charity were founded by St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac in 1617 in France, when the two saints asked a group of women to begin storing goods so they could be ready to help locals facing emergencies.
According to Kay Browne, president of the Oakland County chapter from 1976-78 and a member for nearly 45 years, the local chapter began when a priest at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Parish in Beverly Hills asked a local group of women to continue the tradition, initially run out of a member’s basement. Since its inception, the local all-volunteer Ladies of Charity have grown from 30 members to more than 300.
Browne’s mother was part of the early group, and Browne herself became involved after driving her mother to and from meetings.
“She was a volunteer until she was about 90 years old,” said Browne, whose own two daughters and a daughter-in-law are now members. “It is the only organization that I know of that has been hands-on helping the needy without stopping (during the pandemic.”
While the Ladies don’t work directly with the public, they partner with more than 40 local social service agencies who request goods from the clothes closet and pantry on behalf of their clients, said Charlene Kruptizer, who directs the effort at St. Hugo.
“The caseworkers meet with the clients, decide what they need and then they place orders through our online ordering system,” Kruptizer said. “They tell us what the family needs as far as food, clothing or small household items such as blankets, sheets, dishes, pans or small appliances.”
The group has been able to keep the food pantry up and running during the entirety of the pandemic, Krupitzer said, and only briefly shuttered the clothing operation during the beginning of Michigan’s government-mandated lockdown.
In a normal year, the Ladies’ food pantry processes around 7,000 orders. Last year, they only served 4,022, but not from a lack of need, Kruptizer said.
“Our numbers are down because fewer agencies were able to meet their people (during the pandemic),” Kruptizer said. “They were locked out of their offices, working from home and couldn’t do face-to-face meetings. Now orders are starting to increase because more agencies have figured out how to help their social workers and caseworkers meet with people to talk them through what they need.”
Although operations have shifted, Kruptizer said the group has been inundated with donations — both material and financial — since the beginning of the pandemic.
“We are getting more requests for sheets and blankets and towels for people in temporary housing,” Kruptizer said. “Unfortunately, some people have lost their housing and now are living in shelters, and they are looking for backpacks so they can carry what they have. They need sturdy boots and shoes because they are out on the streets more than they were before.”
The need for children’s items also has increased, Krupitzer said. With more children learning remotely, Kruptizer said the needs of children can more easily slip through the cracks as parents leave them alone to work.
“We had a family of 10 the other day and a family of seven this week who were all looking for clothing, housing, and sheets and blankets,” Krupitzer said.
Because of the need for social distancing and the fact that many of the volunteers are seniors, the Ladies of Charity have been operating with fewer volunteers in the warehouse. But they’ve found other ways to help, including sewing masks for families and children early on during the pandemic.
To ensure older women aren’t isolated, younger members of the organization have been making phone calls, writing letters and providing care and outreach to older members, offering support and companionship from afar.
“We shifted our focus from things we couldn’t do, like in-home visits to nursing home residents, to things we could do,” Swanson said. “We are challenged to be a little more creative, but we have done a lot of good over the last year in finding ways to support people through the pandemic.”
Help the Ladies of Charity
The Ladies of Charity currently accept donations of food, clothing and household items on Tuesdays from 3-4:30 p.m. and on Saturday mornings at St. Hugo of the Hills, 2215 Opdyke, Bloomfield Hills. No donation is wasted, and anything they don’t need gets passed along to the St. Vincent de Paul Society. For information, call (248) 646-0920 or visit theladiesofcharity.org.