Catholic Charities celebrates renovated downtown facility
Catholic Charities is a community benefit organization that is often a first responder in helping struggling residents with food, basic necessities and emergency assistance regardless of age, race or beliefs.
Just a few years ago, their presence in Merced was greatly appreciated, but it largely consisted of an aging building on Main Street and a staff of three people. They were only providing food services three days a week. Clients only received meat one day a month. They were operating with refrigerators and freezers much like those used in everyday homes. Even the warehouse space in the back was being rented out to an upholstery business.
Meanwhile, the organization has seen a 125 percent increase in the need for services all across Merced County.
Such an ambitious project was put in action by the Catholic Charities Diocese of Fresno board of directors to upgrade their facility in Merced and its entire operations for the region. But leaders in Fresno knew that this project in Merced was in need of local support and fundraising to make it happen.
What happened next was just shy of an actual miracle.
“I’m so grateful that this community has showered us with generosity,” said Jeff Negrete, the executive director for Catholic Charities. “It’s a blessing.”
Negrete praised local fundraising efforts, including ticket sales, sponsorships and auction proceeds from the annual Harvest of Hope dinner. He applauded local priests for leading second collections and the annual May Appeal in area parishes. And he thanked the Merced County Food Bank and Sunlight Giving that helped facilitate two generous grants.
All together, the local effort generated more than a half a million dollars.
“When we say that all dollars raised in Merced, stay in Merced County, we mean it, and this project is certainly proof of that,” Negrete said.
Though the project was several years in the making, the renovation portion of it took only a few months. A large walk-in freezer and cold storage unit that can hold up to 12 large pallets of food was added to an expanded warehouse. More offices for more programs were added. The reception area was beautified, and the outside front was adorned with new paint and signage. The commercial construction was provided by local standout Skip George.
Today, Catholic Charities in Merced is providing food services — including meat products — five days a week. They have gone from serving 20,000 people annually to more than 60,000 through the course of the year. That’s nearly half a million pounds of food distributed annually. More importantly, outreach to rural communities has grown an incredible 389 percent. They are providing services into areas around Hilmar, Planada, Dos Palos, Los Banos, and wherever else there’s a need in the county.
“This renovation project allows us to serve more and more people with food — but it’s so much more than that,” Negrete said. “We are providing emergency financial assistance, disaster preparedness — which is right now at the forefront with the wildfires a year ago, and now the floods — disaster relief, and immigration services. We continue to expand and grow in ways like never before.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Catholic Charities held a celebration for the completed project and invited interested residents, volunteers and local leaders to take part.
Bishop Joseph Brennan of the Diocese of Fresno was the guest of honor and he was credited for his leadership in helping to improve the Merced location of Catholic Charities. The Most Reverend leader in turn thanked all involved for the project and he led those in attendance in prayer. He also blessed the entire building.
Merced City Councilwoman Bertha Perez presented Negrete and Bishop Brennan with a city proclamation honoring the work that has been done. Other local community leaders present included Mayor Matthew Serratto, Merced County Supervisor Rodrigo Espinoza, City Councilwoman Sarah Boyle, Assistant City Manager Frank Quintero, Mercy Medical Center President Dale Johns, businessman E.J. Lorenzi, and Merced County Food Bank Executive Director Bill Gibbs.
Gibbs said he was pleased to see Catholic Charities take the lead on such a worthy project.
“Our partner agencies are the ones who do a lot of the work for us,” he told the Times. “This additional storage capacity allows them to take more fresh produce out into the community. It allows them to store frozen foods a lot longer. It just increases capacity to get more nutritious food into the community.”