Southfield — Thanks to the Franciscan Outreach Program at Transfiguration Parish, more than 1,000 families have more to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.
That’s more than 1,000 families who had the chance to gather around the dinner table to enjoy turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and rest of the works that complete a traditional Thanksgiving meal. Most of all, it’s more than 1,000 families in the Metro Detroit area who can forget their financial struggles for one night and take the time to be thankful for all God has given them.
For Franciscan Outreach executive director John Grden, it’s why he loves coming to work every day.
“I really enjoy doing this,” Grden said. “The end result is, I go home tired, but I’m willing to go to work the next day. I feel like I accomplish something by volunteering here.”
Going strong for 65 years, the Franciscan Outreach Program is one of the longest-running food aid programs in the Archdiocese of Detroit, and in the last seven years has grown by leaps and bounds, serving more than 500 families monthly.
What makes the program unique compared to other food banks and charities in the Metro Detroit area — besides its backing by the Franciscan order and the parish — is that it doesn’t have geographic limits.
“The Franciscans have a tradition of doing for others, doing more for other people,” Grden said. “That’s what drives us. We don’t have these borders where we say, ‘Sorry, you live on the wrong side of the street, can’t help you.’ Is that what Christ would’ve wanted.”
Grden said the Franciscan Outreach Program’s border-free philosophy isn’t a knock on other charities in the area, but since the program hands out only food, it can consolidate its resources to help as many people as possible. The program also included financial assistance with rent and utility payments until 2007, when it came to the realization it was stretching itself too thin.
“We do food well, any more would be a stretch,” Grden said. “Every organization needs to make decisions as to how they can serve with their given resources. We decided to focus on food.”
Recipients come in from all across Metro Detroit, with most hailing from Detroit, Southfield and Oak Park.
The Franciscan Outreach Program assisted 709 families in one day this November and 183 the second day it was open. In total, the charity is on pace to serve more than 1,000 families in November, including more than 300 Thanksgiving turkeys with all the trimmings.
Grden used to work in information technology, so he loves to keep spreadsheets and graphs of data from all the people the program has helped, with records going back to 2008. In October 2008, the program served 129 families. For October this year, the program served 874 families.
The Franciscan Outreach Program receives donations from individuals and groups, and the organization partners with Kroger, where participants can shop with a Kroger card, and a percentage of the money they spend goes back to the Franciscan Outreach Program.
Another key to the program’s success is the ability to stretch a dollar as far as possible. Grden appreciates when people donate canned food items or turkeys to the program, but insists it’s more effective to give a monetary contribution.The Meijer store in Royal Oak has a program called “Simply Give,” in which Meijer gives the Franciscan Outreach Program gift cards that Grden uses to shop for the program.
“We buy our turkeys at Gleaners; we have a donor who reimburses us with a check for every turkey we buy,” Grden said. We try to show people the numbers, put together data that show how we can buy food at prices they could never buy. At Gleaners, we get the USDA price, that’s what Gleaners is for. An 18 oz. can of peanut butter costs $2.88. I pay $2.88 for an entire case of peanut butter.”
All the graphs and charts showing how much is spent and how many families benefit are tools Grden uses to ask for donations.
“If you give me $4, I promise to put that money to good use,” he said. “We’re very careful when we shop; we’re careful with the hard-earned money people give to us. But we’re one of the only food banks that gives out meat, and that’s because we can get chicken at 39 cents a pound — I challenge you to beat that price anywhere else.”
As of October 2015, the Franciscan Outreach program will have served 1,716 families with 415,356 pounds of food. The program has only been open for two days in November, but 892 families already have received their Thanksgiving dinners, with more to come.
Every time a family visits Transfiguration Parish to pick up food, volunteers are amazed with how polite and grateful they are, which is the main reason volunteers choose to dedicate their time to the program.
“When we work with families, we hear the struggles people are going through in their lives, some of the burdens they have,” said Tom Bassett, a Transfiguration parishioner. “There is a large community with significant need, and the volunteers here have a sense of dedication to follow in the footsteps of St. Francis.
“What people admire most I think is the chance to talk to someone about what they are going through. When we’re carrying 30 to 40 pound bags up the stairs, we get to hear these people’s stories and how much we’re helping them. That’s why we like to do what we do.”
Grden doesn’t have complete numbers for November or December yet, but the Franciscan Outreach Program is on track to hand out more food in 2015 than in any year prior.
While the program strives not to turn people away — and Grden admits there were times it was really close — he looks forward to the day when the service will no longer be needed.
“I hear people saying, ‘Why are you getting more people, aren’t things getting better?’” Grden said. “Things aren’t getting better in the areas the government doesn’t have statistics for. People’s wages aren’t going up; they haven’t for a while, so people are struggling to buy food, because everything else goes up.
“It’s a good day when nobody needs food. Until then, we’ll be here.”