Getting to the Grassroots: Visiting Catholic Worker House in Redwood City

 In Designated Fund

by: Ashley Murphy, Program Associate

As the newest member of the PVF team, I am busy familiarizing myself with our various programs and grantees within the Bay Area. As part of this process, I have been doing some site visits, a la Bill Somerville fashion, to meet PVF’s repertoire of outstanding individuals. Bill frequently reminds me of the importance of getting out of the office to observe the daily lives of the programs and people we fund. It is the key to grassroots giving.

Larry Purcell of Catholic Worker House

Recently, I was able to put Bill’s advice into action when I traveled to Redwood City to visit Larry Purcell of Catholic Worker House. Founded in 1975 by Larry, Catholic Worker House provides basic but needed services to the immediate community’s poorest.

The Catholic Worker House is unassuming. It is a small house in a quiet neighborhood, and I would have mistaken it for a typical residential home if not for the large sign outside which reads “No Camas/No Beds.”  Once inside, I met a volunteer, Ronnie, who sat at the kitchen table folding their newsletters which would later be mailed out to their supporters.  I was impressed with their simple approach to outreach:  The Catholic Worker House does not have a website or an online presence, but rather focus on a traditional approach to fundraising and spreading their message.

Grants from PVF, along with small individual donations raised from these newsletter appeals, are what sustain Catholic Worker House, allowing them to run a few well-established programs. One of these is their housing program, in which people are housed rent-free for as long as they need support. The home, which also doubles as Catholic Workers House’s headquarters, has an atmosphere that is stable, safe, and loving, as a home should be. In addition to its housing program, Catholic Worker House collects over 10,000 pounds of free food each week and distributes it to the hungry and homeless.

They also encourage English literacy through their language school. Larry drove me to this inconspicuous school, which is located within a small home nearby. The only indicator of the school is a small sign on the sidewalk which reads: “English classes.” Despite its lack of advertising, the school includes more than 60 women who are taught English by 15 volunteers. Such a language program is integral to the Catholic Worker mission. According to Larry and his volunteer staff, “learning a language empowers the poor and gives them choices.”

Larry was the subject of one of PVF’s micro-documentaries.

Larry has dedicated himself to working with the homeless in a way few have; by living in the home alongside those they serve. He is a humble man. This is evident in the way he claims to know no Spanish, which one would assume to be a vital skill when working with immigrants in Redwood City. At one point during my visit, a woman came up to us asking for assistance in Spanish. Without any hesitation, Larry immediately dove into a lengthy response to her in Spanish. When I later mentioned that he clearly has mastered the language more than he let on, he brushed off the comment and insisted on being monolingual.

It is through these face-to-face interactions with individuals like Larry Purcell, in which I can see firsthand PVF’s effectiveness in grassroots giving. Larry and his Catholic Worker House are a testament to the power of working on a local level to effect needed change.

Catholic Worker House is just one of many small programs working in the community that PVF considers to be a partner, not just a grantee. There is collaboration, trust, and constant support – so much so that the PVF family, ever-growing, is much larger than I ever realized.

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