More than 1,000 families each year benefit from the late Fr. Gene Jakubek, S. J’s., vision to solicit clean, used clothing and distribute it to the poor.
Fr. Gene’s HELP Center, 5919 W. National Ave, is a non-profit, non-denominational charitable group that gives clothes to the poor.
The acronym HELP stands for “Help for the Elderly, Lonely and Poor,” and since 1969, the organization has worked to bring happiness to others. In the beginning, a group of approximately 20 individuals visited nursing homes, playing bingo, celebrating birthdays, hosting sing-alongs, visiting and other activities to brighten the lives of residents.
Brookfield couple Esther and George Reed transformed the organization to what it is today. Once, when visiting at a nursing home, they met with an elderly woman who needed a suitable bathrobe. She did not have the funds to purchase one and no family to step in to help. Word spread and soon the woman had a bathrobe and they had a garage filled with clothing.
By June 1972, the group realized the necessity of having a more recognized organization and established a charitable trust with a constitution and bylaws. They rented a small storefront on 60th Street and North Avenue, and the clothing ministry continued.
In 1985, under Fr. Gene’s leadership, the group formally incorporated as a tax-exempt, charitable organization, later moving to its current location.
As the President of the Help Center, Jim Wozniak explained that the organization is comprised of fabulous volunteers who continue to believe in Fr. Gene’s mission to care for the elderly, lonely and poor. Everyone, from the board of directors to the executive director to the office, clothing and parish volunteers works without pay.
“We really haven’t veered from that,” he said.
Volunteers at the HELP Center are primarily retired, but Wozniak says they are looking for additional volunteers of all ages to help staff the center. The volunteers take calls from those in need during the week. While many incoming calls come in from single mothers, anyone in need can get clothes for themselves and their children.
“After the people contact us by phone call, which can also come from various churches, the VA and recently from the Department of Corrections — so many need help and we are trying to help across the board,” said Wozniak. “The volunteers that take the calls list the number of people and their clothing sizes on an order. Other volunteers organize and sort clothes. We have clothes come in the front door and go out the back door.”
Volunteers are the lifeblood of the HELP Center and according to Wozniak, once they volunteer, they stick around “forever.”
“We have one 91-year-old woman who has been here for 21 years,” he said. “She has a brain tumor and despite getting radiation treatments, she still comes to volunteer because she said she feels so good coming in to help. I have a number of friends who, after I gave them a tour of the place, kept coming back to help. It’s a great way to meet people, to help others and you are really filling a need when you volunteer here.”
Expenses related the program are met through individuals, organizations, corporations and foundations.
“Fr. Gene set up some donations through corporations or individuals and many of them are still alive and contributing on a regular basis,” Wozniak explained. “The money just comes in every month. There is one account I remember and that is with the owner of Shorewest Realty. Every month, the donations are there. There are others that left the HELP Center in their will or a trust. Some donations have decreased due to less people knowing Fr. Gene, but then there are others, like a guy who comes in several times a year. He brings an envelope with 10 $100 bills inside. He leaves no name or anything. People are so generous because they realize that this provides such a great service to people.”
Since Wozniak began helping with the center, he said the need has stayed the same. Despite various social programs, there are always those in need.
“Our society is so taken care of, but people fall through the cracks and don’t know how or where to go to find help, but then they find us and we give them a winter coat or a pair of shoes and they are often ashamed or dealing with frostbite,” he said. “You would be shocked if you saw what some of them walk in with. I am happy we are there for them. We don’t hold onto stuff and stuff goes out one day and there is more coming in the next. It is like the loaves and the fishes.”
In May 1989, Wozniak’s doorbell rang and Fr. Gene was there with a coffee can in one arm and a handful of keys in the other. He told Wozniak that he was asked to leave Milwaukee and wanted him to run the HELP Center and never let it die. Despite the departure under somewhat of a cloud of the founder, the work of the HELP Center continued unabated.
“I think I have 39 years left to go,” said the 61-year-old Wozniak. “We are here for the long term. I don’t think the need will change. Clothes will change, but we are still going to be there. I hope people will check us out — I am happy to give them a tour.”