- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 11, 2001

Denise Barnes interviewed Mary Sebold, director of Charlie's Place at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in the District.
Question: How did you switch from a career in Middle East cultural and development issues to working at Charlie's Place?
Answer: My field for 22 years had been Middle East studies, and at one point, I decided to go back to graduate school for my master's in public health. My idea was to combine public health, Arabic and Middle East studies and go into international health and development. But I became very disillusioned with my position at the time.
As a volunteer at Charlie's Place, I did a lot of dishwashing and I remember a longtime volunteer asking if I was ever going to come out and serve people. Towards the end of my last job, volunteering at Charlie's Place became the best part of my life. The volunteer work at Charlie's Place made me the happiest.
Q: Who comes to Charlie's Place?
A: Charlie's Place caters to homeless men and women, but, in our case, it's primarily men. Charlie's Place offers people social and legal services, and everything we do here is bilingual. Fifty-five percent of our clientele are middle-age adults, 67 percent are Hispanic, 30 percent are African-American and 3 percent are non-Hispanic, and all of those numbers fluctuate.
In addition to the meals, we have performing-art classes in music and drama. We also offer ESL [English as a Second Language], and we just started offering Spanish classes.
When we conducted focus groups in 1999 for purposes of expansion, we found that the men wanted something to do after breakfast some sort of activity. When we presented the results of the focus group to our entire group, some of the men said they wanted to learn Spanish. I thought it was wonderful idea. They were indeed ahead of the curve, since all of us will eventually have to learn Spanish.
Q: When are the classes offered?
A: Classes are offered on Tuesday and Friday from 8 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. Our hope is to expand to more days of the week, but we aren't there yet. Spanish is taught on Tuesdays and ESL is taught on both days.
Q: How do you measure the success of Charlie's Place?
A: We tend to measure success in terms of steps people take in living healthier lives. We don't measure how many people stop being homeless; that's hard to measure. But we can measure their health, which includes their mental health and their employment situation. That's how we measure success.
Q: How many folks come through the doors on any given Tuesday or Friday morning?
A: Our numbers fluctuate between 35 and 50. You can walk in here one day and there are all new faces. Some stay and become regulars. One thing that's neat about Charlie's Place is, despite the fact that we have people who speak two different languages, people get along here.
I think it's like [TVs] "Cheers" it's the kind of place everyone knows your name if you want them to. Oftentimes, the guys fill out name tags and they leave them on the tables. They just like to see the name tags. They don't necessarily wear their name tags. We play a name-tag game with different combinations: The guys name the volunteers, or the guys name the guys. That's one of the ways we get to know each other.
Part of our mission statement is to encourage community, health and independence among men and women who are homeless and who are poor in this area. We put a sign out on Tuesdays and Fridays; one side is written in Spanish, the other in English, so the guys know what the program offers.
Before breakfast, we have a different presentation, whether it's holiday-related, a cultural presentation or health education. We're very big on health education.
For instance, our music teacher has contests before breakfast. One day, the group listens to Latin tunes and the other day they listen to American tunes. People have to name the tunes, and if they answer correctly, they get a new pair of socks. Everybody cheers.
Just a few weeks ago, we started an exercise class on Tuesday mornings. It kind of just makes the place lively sometimes too lively for that hour of the morning. In the drama classes, people work on monologues about their lives.
Q: Why is the focus on health rather than helping people obtain a home or permanent shelter?
A: Health education is a focus because one of the first steps in public health education is to get the information to the people. It may have to jell for a long time in their minds before they decide they want to do anything about it.
For example, most people know smoking is dangerous, a lot of our guys know that drinking is dangerous, but they may not want to do anything about that at this time. But it's our duty to give them the information and have someone here who is licensed to counsel them when they want to take that step.
Q: What is Charlie's Place's goal?
A: We hope to open up more days of the week. However, that will have to be examined carefully. And we would need a couple more full-time staffers.
There's a need, especially on the weekends, because there are not a lot of other places where they can hang out for a little while. On Tuesdays and Fridays, there's something fun for them to do here. We serve coffee, pastries, and there's a hot meal. You know, we're famous for our Central American-style food.
Q: What's being served at Charlie's Place that gets rave reviews?
A: Our stew of beans and tomatoes over rice. We realized that's what most of the men wanted. They wanted what they ate in Latin America. People can take as many bowls as they want.
A funny thing happened two years ago, when we ran into a guy who stopped and said, "I know you people. You're the beans-and-rice people. Don't you know what beans do beans make you sleep. You people are trying to make homeless people sleep." It was funny because we had never thought of it that way. But it's true: Beans do make you sleep. We serve it every day; it's a staple here. If we don't serve it, we hear about it, and if we only serve it, we hear about it.
Q: How do the drama and art classes help the homeless?
A: Drama and art classes basically help people develop a sense of self. That confidence may lead a person to take a step towards better health. Some of our men have HIV-AIDS, a lot of mental illnesses, addictions, TB, hepatitis, just tons of different things. And then there are people who are just down on their luck and get into a spin cycle. The classes feed their souls, and they discover their talents.

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