This past weekend I attended a wine tasting held at St. Leo’s parish, specifically, St. Leo’s school on Stiles Street in Baltimore’s Little Italy. St. Leo’s features an outreach program called “Hands and Hearts” that, according to the St. Leo’s site (http://www.littleitalymd.com/St_Leo_s_Parish.htm), “brings together the generous people and restaurants of Little Italy to help the hungry.” Hands and Hearts also has its own website at http://littleitalyhandsandhearts.org.
I learned about this wonderful organization via a dear friend of mine, Hands and Hearts past president, Maria Serafini. Maria connected me with current H&H president, Mike Dominelli, whom I interviewed for this blog to gain insights on what its like initiating events and fundraisers and handling self-promotion for a grassroots organization. Here’s that interview:
Q: Can you tell me a little about Hands and Hearts?
A: Little Italy Hands and Hearts was founded in January of 2007 by Fathers Mike Salerno and Sal Furnari of St. Leo the Great church in Little Italy. The purpose of the group was to bring together people of all ages in the parish and the community to carry out charitable works. In the beginning, this meant a group of volunteers meeting once a week to make 30 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to feed to neighborhood homeless men.
One of our founding members, Nino Germano of La Scala Ristorante, offered to occasionally prepare hot food to serve to the homeless men. That was the beginning of our very successful partnership with area restaurants and wholesalers. Now we have 11 local restaurants and wholesalers on a rotating schedule for our feedings. We have a group of about 25 active volunteers, who serve 72 hot meals each week to the homeless men spending the night at the Baltimore Rescue Mission. To date we’ve served almost 15,000 meals.
In addition to this program, we have a rotating crew of volunteers that buy and deliver groceries each week for the Karis Home, an emergency women’s and children’s shelter in Little Italy. The group is also active in soliciting and collecting donations of food and clothing for the home.
Finally, we serve food once a week at the Sisters of Charity hospice in East Baltimore for men with HIV/AIDS. Another rotating crew of volunteers prepares a home-cooked meal and serves it family-style to the men at the hospice.
Q: What’s it like trying to oversee a volunteer organization?
A: All of our programs concentrate on getting our volunteers actively involved with the people we are helping. We believe that those receiving the food we deliver sometimes benefit more from the smiles, the handshakes and the sense of community than they do from the nutrition of the food we bring. There is also a great benefit to our volunteers: I always say that the 72 “god bless you”s you get when handing out pasta far outweigh the 45 minutes of work you just did.
We are an all volunteer group, and everyone contributes his own expertise. We are lucky enough to have an extremely capable chair of our Fundraising Committee, Ashley Marzzacco, who effectively divided responsibility among our volunteers. Many hands make for quick work: she took a seemingly impossible task and organized about 15 volunteers to make it work.
Q: Your wine tasting fundraiser boasted quite a turnout. What was it like trying to put on this event?
A: We began this year’s preparations by casting a very broad net. We approached over 70 restaurants, bars, wine distributors and other businesses for donations. I was personally shocked at the positive response. Almost without exception, people gave as much as they could: some gave food to serve 200 at the event, some could only give a bottle of wine. It all counted.
One thing that really helped our solicitation was the fact that 100% of the ticket price will be going to serve the needy in our programs. Graphic design, printing, paper plates, flowers…. all items were donated. It turns out that when you tell your neighbor “we need a donation to feed the hungry right here in our neighborhood,” they do not hesitate to give.
We advertised the event through press releases, social media, and posters at participating restaurants. This year we almost doubled our fundraising goal, with an estimated gross of over $10,000. This for us is a great success. This will allow us to make our wine tasting a biennial event – we have enough funds to operate for two years now. It will also allow us to expand our programming – we plan on reaching out to other homeless care providers in the near future.
Q: What’s next for Hands and Hearts?
A: Now that we are transitioning out of fundraising mode, our next thoughts will be to expand our volunteer base. Hopefully the wine tasting inspires some to join us. Look for a potluck in January to welcome new members.
For those interested in volunteering, making a donation, or both, contact Little Italy Hands and Hearts President Mike Dominelli, 227 South Exeter Street Baltimore, Maryland 21202, info@LittleItalyHandsAndHearts.org.