Parish opens doors to families during dangerous cold snap

By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

BURLINGTON — As he sat in front of his television watching the forecast for the week of Jan. 27, Craig Fenton became concerned. A member of Divine Mercy Parish in Burlington, he regularly works with homeless individuals in southeast Iowa through the organization he founded, TransitionsDMC. The forecast called for below-zero highs and wind chills of minus-45 degrees. “I saw how cold it was going to get and I got concerned for the people I work with on a daily basis. I know many are living under overpasses, in abandoned houses and a lot of different places.”

Craig Fenton
Carolyn Hauser, a member of Divine Mercy Parish in Burlington, plays a game with Montana, whose family received a hot meal and other necessities at St. John Church in Burlington during dangerously cold weather Jan. 29-31.

Transitions DMC hopes to open the area’s first emergency shelter this year. A homeless shelter with 14 beds is in operation, but Fenton said it is full most of the time.

He checked with the state about acquiring emergency funds to help homeless individuals during the coldest days, Jan. 29-31, but was told nothing was available. Fenton asked his pastor, Father Marty Goetz, about the possibility of opening the parish’s St. John Church cafeteria to the public during the dangerous cold snap.

“Without hesitation, he said, ‘Yes, let’s do it,’” Fenton recalled. Local fire and police personnel agreed to keep watch on areas where homeless people usually sleep to let them know about the temporary emergency shelter at St. John’s.

On Transitions DMC’s Facebook page, Fenton posted a request for blankets, coats, food and other items which could be distributed to people in need. The response, he said, was overwhelming. “It was a humbling experience, how much we received. People came in with carloads of stuff.”

Volunteers — Catholic and non-Catholic — helped set up the cafeteria, prepare and serve food and unload and sort donations. Fr. Goetz, parochial vicar Father Dan Dorau and Deacon Bob Glaser and Luann Glaser were on hand to help. While the cafeteria was open, individuals and families ate a hot meal and could take as many donated items as they wished.

The shelter served more than 75 individuals, with five to 10 spending the night Jan. 29 and Jan. 30. “We generally had more volunteers than people staying here but we have gotten a lot of needed supplies into people’s hands,” Fenton said. Leftover items were to be given to Transitions DMC and St. Vincent de Paul food pantry to be distributed as needed.

Leon was one of the people who spent the night at St. John’s. While not homeless, he was unable to return to his home during the cold snap and was worried about where he would stay. A relative told him about the opportunity at St. John’s. After he arrived, he received a hot meal, a cot and a few blankets. “I’m thankful; I feel relieved I didn’t have to be out in (the cold).”

Jean Ballinger, a member of Divine Mercy Parish, helped sort donations and take care of other needs while the cafeteria was open to the public. “You see a lot of things you don’t normally see if you’re blessed like I’ve always been. It opens your eyes a little more to what other people’s struggles are.”

Fenton receives Mayor’s Award

For his work in organizing the emergency shelter at St. John Church, Burlington Mayor Shane McCampbell presented Craig Fenton with the Mayor’s Award for “being a model Burlingtonian” on Feb. 4. However, Fenton believes it was a team effort. “(I’m) honored but so many people donated and volunteered to make our cold weather shelter event happen. I accept on behalf of the southeast Iowa community, Divine Mercy Parish and Transitions DMC,” Fenton wrote on his Facebook page after receiving the award.

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