Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Everyday Grace:
Families helping families

by Mary Cronk Farrell

(From the June 14, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)

Mary Cronk Farrell We decided this Memorial Day weekend our kids needed a lesson in service and gratitude. We volunteered for Camp St. Francis, sponsored by Catholic Life Ministries Northwest. I knew we’d be fixing up a house. I didn’t know how much it would teach me.

One walk through the four-bedroom rancher on the Yakima Indian Reservation and Carpenter Nathan Kauffman said, “This is unsanitary. Kids cannot live here.”

But five children did: Jasmine, Danielle, Bobby, Jeremiah and Isaac. The worst problem? The wax ring on the toilet had gone bad years ago. Water from the flush flowed under the linoleum. The floor was gradually collapsing under the toilet and tub. A pipe had cracked, pouring sewage into the crawl space beneath the house.

We joined about 10 other families, dressed in our grubbies, and took up crowbars, hammers, and paint rollers. We slept in tents, prayed, sang, and worked in 90-degree heat. Other families participated by feeding us and giving money for supplies and necessary paid labor.

Organizer Robert Fontana says the point is families helping families. “They regain a little bit of decent living,” he said. “And we learn compassion.”

Weeks before, CLM hired a contractor for major work like replacing rotten joists under the home. One full bath, a half bath, laundry room, and one bedroom needed total re-building. Nathan and Robert cleaned up the sewage, making it safe for volunteers.

“A lot of it, I picked it up by hand. I wore a mask, and gloves. And then we poured lime, which turns it to compost very quickly,” said Robert.

After that, skilled or not, everyone had a job, including some 25 children aged 8-18. Outside people picked up garbage in the yard, mowed, and repaired, scraped and painted under the eaves. We worked inside framing walls, replacing drywall, prying up particle floorboard, and washing, priming, and painting.

Fourteen-year-old Ali Thiel entered a new world as she rolled primer over the graffiti on Jasmine’s bedroom walls. “The words and sentences they wrote, I would never be able to write something like that on my wall where everyone could see it. Swear words and sentences about people and what they were doing – that was a jolt.”

Later, Jasmine (15) painted her bedroom, alongside Ali. She applied a second coat of her choice, “glazed raspberry,” while singing along with a boom box. “I never thought this would happen. Thought I’d be in the ghetto forever,” Jasmine told me. She and 12-year-old Danielle giggled with excitement, telling me this gives them a new start.

Eight-year-old Isaac jumped in next to me with a paintbrush and kept working after others had quit. Jere-miah, age 10, helped paint his newly patched walls, saying, “Everybody gets mad and punches the wall, but now we don’t want anymore holes.”

There are no guarantees. We know we could come back later and not be able to see the improvements we made.

But CLM picked this house out of many similar ones because the family shows promise. The children’s father, a former drug and alcohol addict, is now sober, has regained custody of his children, kept a job, and taken parenting classes. The family did not ask for help.

It was hard work, but nobody complained. The teenagers had fun because they were with friends. A few came only because their parents made them, but ended up liking it.

Kate Fontana chose to come home from college for the weekend. The project reminded her of work she did last year in New Orleans. “This family hasn’t survived a hurricane per se. Maybe a different kind of hurricane. It made me think about how much goes unseen. We respond to huge disasters, traumatic events, but this is daily reality for some people.”

For me, it was painful to imagine the children living in such squalor, to look into their shining faces and think of what they’ve experienced in their short lives. It was a hard, but much-needed lesson in service and gratitude.

© 2007, Mary Cronk Farrell

(Mary Cronk Farrell is a Spokane free-lance and children’s writer. Her latest book, Celebrating Faith: Year-Round Activities for Catholic Families, has been published by St. Anthony Messenger Press. Contact her at

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