For the past two years, Christopher Gale has been serving as the administrator of Casa del Carmen, a branch of Catholic Social Services (CSS) which was founded to serve the Latino community in North Philadelphia. According to CSS records, Casa del Carmen impacted 21,387 people during the 2015-2016 fiscal year. If a client can’t come to Casa del Carmen’s office at Fifth and Reese streets, the staff will come to the client.
Can you give a brief background on Casa del Carmen?
Casa has been around since 1954. It was established at Seventh and Jefferson, specifically to help the growing Latino population in North Philadelphia. Now we don’t just help Latinos anymore, but they’re still our primary clientele. Most of our staff is bilingual.
We’ve been at this facility since the late-80s, early-90s. Throughout the years we’ve done different things. The preschool started as a child care center. Now it’s an actual preschool academy.
As the administrator, what do you do at Casa del Carmen?
I direct and manage the programs and the staff here at Casa, so I’ve got six different programs between my family service center and my preschool. Between those two buildings, we have six programs and about 25 staff. We serve 73 kids everyday at the preschool. We are a PHLpreK site, so we are able to offer for preschool during the school year. For the rest of the year we offer low-cost preschool. We work to keep that affordable so our families can access the program. That’s my only program that has a cost component to it. All of my other programs are absolutely free.
What are some other programs that you’re in charge of?
I’ve got two food pantries: a traditional food bank and a green light market. The green light market is in partnership with the Coalition Against Hunger. Then we have a clothing bank, we have foster care and adoption and our BenePhilly program. And we have the helpline for all Catholic Social Services in this building, so I have two social workers that man phones five days a week and take calls for help. If we have a program internally, we try to help them. If not, we try to get them to the right organization that can help them. But yeah, all of our programs are geared toward low-income, poverty-stricken people.
Can you explain what BenePhilly is?
BenePhilly is a great program! It’s benefit access, so any local, state or federal entitlement programs that somebody could qualify for. I’ve got two benefit access counselors, and their job is to work with clients to ascertain which benefits the clients qualify for and then take them through the application process.
It takes that intimidation factor out of it so you’re not having to go to, like, a WIC office or a county assistant’s office or just online with the state and have to deal with that website by yourself. Our guys walk you through that process. They make sure you have the right paperwork, you prove your income and birth certificate, all of that stuff that the local, state or federal government requires to apply for that benefit. Not only does it make it more personable, but clients are more likely to receive that benefit because they have the right paperwork and it was filled out correctly.
Do you hold community events to connect with the neighborhood?
Yeah, every day we try to do stuff. Recently, we had our community baby shower. It was our second baby shower of the year. We do it here on site and it’s free of charge. We invite community partners to come give out information or giveaways, like PECO comes in and gives out low energy lightbulbs. It’s free for the venders too, we don’t charge them anything. At this recent baby shower we had over 170 moms, either pregnant or had recently given birth, come. It was probably the best attended since I’ve been here. Those are things we try to do to try to get more resources into the hands of the families and individuals that we serve.
Do you have any stories that have stuck with you since you’ve been here?
We had one mom that I met whose husband had just passed away and she had four kids, all under the age of six I believe. All of a sudden, she had become the primary caregiver for these kids. Her primary language was Spanish and she didn’t have a college degree, and I’m not sure if she even had a high school diploma. She’s trying to figure out what’s she’s going to do. She had spoken with one of our parent educators who had then introduced her to me. Christmas was coming up, and the parent educator told me her whole backstory and asked how we could help her. So we bought Christmas gifts for the kids, bikes and scooter, so we could make sure the kids had something to open up. Beyond that, she stayed in touch and kept coming to parenting classes. We were then able to step in and help her get clothes, diapers, baby food, formula. We were able to help her as much as we could, rather than just that one time.
Does it seem like that’s a theme with your clients? They all come for assistance with one thing, but end up requiring and getting help with multiple issues?
Absolutely. We had a gentleman a couple years ago who moved [here] from Florida. He basically had nothing, so he came to us for clothes because he was getting ready to start work the next week. He didn’t have work clothes. That’s how he came to us, and while he was here we introduced him to one of our benefit access counselors and said, “Hey, you may qualify for additional benefits.” The gentleman said, “Well, I just need clothes,” and we were like, “Yeah, but this might help you out.” We explained that, by applying and taking some of these benefits, it would help free up money in his budget. He did that and he came back to us later when all of his benefits went through and was in such a good spot. He was so happy, and he was in a stable situation where he could work because he was getting some of this extra assistance.
-Text and images by Jonathan Ginsburg.