P.3circleoffriendsKaren and John Czajkowski, left to right, and Peggy Bolhuis sort donations from the Circle of Friends recently at the home of Annette Loper. Since it began in February 2009, the Circle of Friends has helped about 17 struggling families. (Catholic Herald photo by Juan C. Medina)“Lean on me, when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend/. I’ll help you carry on.
For it won’t be long. ‘Til I’m gonna need..
Somebody to lean on….”
– Lyrics from ”Lean on Me”

A hard worker, Mark (last name withheld for privacy) prided himself on earning a decent income, purchasing food, clothing and a new home for his wife and four children. While they weren’t rich, the close-knit family had a little money in the bank, appreciated an occasional night out and enjoyed their involvement in their parish, community and Little League. They were living the American Dream.

One day, Mark got sick with a terminal illness and everything changed.

“I lost my job and the bills began to pile up,” he said. “I’ve been trying to get Social Security Disability, but they keep denying me so now I have to get a lawyer to help us through that maze, and there is so much paperwork.”

On the verge of losing their home, the family struggles each month to pay the necessary bills and buy groceries. They have contacted another attorney to begin bankruptcy proceedings. For Mark, being able to provide for his family was integral to his role as a Catholic man and head of his household. Weakened from his illness, and depressed, he wondered each day how he would get through to the next one without losing his family’s respect.

Mark needed a friend, and God provided a whole circle of them.

“I got a call from someone from a group called the Circle of Friends who heard that I was in need and they asked if they could help me. I said, ‘Sure,’” he explained. “They give me groceries, laundry soap and things we need like cereal, canned goods – about four to five grocery bags full each month. They also give me a couple of hundred dollars in cash or a gift certificate for more shopping and groceries.”

While it isn’t enough to solve the family’s financial problems, it is enough for Mark to feel better about himself, and it has boosted his faith, which he admits has taken a beating the past few months.
“I was having a lot of trouble with my faith,” he said. “I began to get angry with God and wondered where he was. I know we are going to lose everything – but these angels have helped us get from one day to the next without giving up and for whatever reason, we are still living in our house. I thought we would have lost it long ago.”

In addition to the groceries and the little spending money, Mark appreciates the encouragement given to him by the volunteers, and the ability to, once again, feel like a human being.

“They listen to me talk all the time, and sometimes guide me toward places I can go for help, such as getting the Social Security attorney,” he said. “But for me, I have a couple of dollars in my pocket now and if I need some parts for something that breaks down, I can pay for them.  Sometimes I want a soda or the kids want gum, and I can get that for them. I can feel like their dad again because of these angels.”

During their regular visits in church after Mass, or at local coffee shops, Annette Loper, Peggy Bolhuis and several friends began discussing the economy and how it has affected so many families in the area.

For more information on the Circle of Friends:
Contact: Annette Loper
(414) 764-2720
or Peggy Bolhuis
(414) 762-1416

“We started thinking that it was silly to sit there and talk and not do something,” said Loper, a member of Divine Mercy Parish, South Milwaukee. “Most of us were retired and have income coming in each month that provides us with security. But those who are unemployed don’t have that security and we decided to do something about it.”

With the goal of keeping the program anonymous and simple, Loper, the Circle of Friends coordinator, set up clusters of 10-14 individuals. Currently, more than 70 members comprise seven clusters. Each month, members donate between $10-$20, or whatever they can manage, as well as some non-perishable items. Of those funds, $150 is used to purchase gift cards for grocery stores and the remainder is in cash.
Although a spreadsheet is passed out to each member giving them a non-perishable item to purchase for the month, members are generous and often provide far more than asked. Some months, Loper finds bags of fresh fruit, vegetables and cheese at her door in addition to the requested items. Once the donations are collected at the cluster leader’s home, the items are either picked up or delivered to the family.
“We adopt an unemployed family and/or a family having severe medical issues causing a financial strain,” explained Loper, who added that only she and the cluster leader know the name of the family. “We adopt them for six months and each month give them money and the collected items. After six months, we evaluate their situation and if they are still struggling, we continue with them.”

Since its inception in February 2009, the Circle of Friends is assisting its 17th family, and is working with seven families struggling with a variety of devastating circumstances. The interdenominational group, not affiliated with any church, learns of needy families through word of mouth, and volunteers are primarily in the Milwaukee area.
“However, we have one volunteer with relatives from other states,” said Loper. “They wanted to hear more about it, so we sent them a brochure and they started a group in their own community.”

While there are many families who are referred to the Circle of Friends for help, often they are a bit embarrassed when Loper calls.
“We sometimes have to talk them into it,” she admitted. “We keep their names anonymous to maintain their dignity, and go from there.”

The amount of money and food products are not enough to cure the financial burdens or divert the inevitable, but enough to reduce financial pressure and help the family survive as a unit.

“Almost all the families have said that this gets them through the month and helps them mentally survive to the next month,” said Loper. “In fact, there is such a sense of pride that if a family member finds a job, they will contact us and tell us to use the money for another family in need. We always ask if they could use our help for a couple more months to get on their feet, but they usually refuse.”

Offering hope to so many people is humbling to each member of the Circle of Friends who insist that the faith of the families they help is edifying and spiritually, they receive more than they give.
“They have such tremendous faith and are able to endure sometimes horrendous situations, but they still remain strong and positive to keep their families together,” said Loper. “Despite all their difficulties, we are inspired by their strength and never cease to be amazed at that.”
She noted that with one exception, the help from Circle of Friends has allowed the recipients ­­­­­to keep their homes.

After graduating from the program, some of the families offer to join the Circle of Friends desiring to give back, but they are encouraged, instead, to focus on getting their finances in order, heal from the pain of loss and enjoy each other.
“We know that they will still be struggling and we don’t want any pressure on them to give back,” said Loper. “We are happy we can help and hope they are able to get back on their feet.”

The Circle of Friends concept has grown and often Loper is asked to share their information with different communities and church groups across the country. She isn’t sure how many have adopted the plan, but is encouraged that the interest continues.
“One thing that concerns me is that some people don’t realize how bad the unemployment problem is,” she said. “We don’t want to become apathetic to this and that is the danger. We don’t want people getting used to the unemployment and let their guard down – we need to be about helping each other. That is what God calls us to do.”