Samaritan House offers residents a homestyle Thanksgiving

Anya Semenoff

It’s the time of year when friends, co-workers, or fellow parishioners ask each other: “What are you doing for Thanksgiving?”

For many, the answer involves gatherings with family and friends at their own home or traveling to a friend’s or family member’s. But at the Samaritan House, Thanksgiving involves pulling together a community of hundreds to share a day of gratitude.

On Thanksgiving Day, some 500 men, women and children experiencing homelessness will visit the Catholic Charities Samaritan House and receive a meal prepared by the Westin Denver Downtown staff. Each person who goes through the meal line will not only be offered a broad selection of holiday dishes, but also receive outreach provided by a team of staff and volunteers.

“I think a lot of people when they want to volunteer, on a holiday especially, they imagine a five-mile long dinner line with people on one side who are needy with empty plates and then on the other side are all these volunteer opportunities to dish out food. And I don’t really know of anything like that at all in Denver, but especially here that’s just not the case,” said Anna Maestas, director of volunteering at Samaritan House. “It’s a home, and we try to preserve the feeling of it being a home for our residents.”

In the week leading up to Thanksgiving, residents can write what they’re grateful for on paper leaves, which are then attached to a tree that serves as a holiday decoration. Case managers stand ready to assist, and repeat volunteers who have developed relationships with residents sometimes join attendees at the table. The Thanksgiving lunch offers a chance for ministry and promotes the culture of love and service that Samaritan House tries to offer.

Each year for Thanksgiving, Samaritan House, in partnership with the Westin Denver Downtown hotel, provides some 500 men, women and children experiencing homelessness with a Thanksgiving meal. In addition to a plate of warm food, they also receive outreach provided by a team of staff and volunteers. (Photo by Nissa Lapoint/Catholic Charities)

For Kyle Dyer, a former longtime 9News anchor, volunteering at Samaritan House for Thanksgiving has become a family tradition, one that’s made a big impact on her and her family.

“I thought it would be sad, but I don’t feel sadness at all when I go,” Dyer said. “I feel a lot that everyone who comes through the line is so thankful, and I think that’s really great for my kids to see. Yes, these people need a permanent home, but for that day we can offer compassion and that compassion brings them hope.”

Brian Wheeler, a Kentucky-native who moved to Denver with his then-girlfriend, found himself without a home and no other options. He discovered Samaritan House four months ago by searching the internet for where to go in Denver to seek help, and says he’s already felt profound changes in his life.

“It’s been an amazing experience,” Wheeler said. “I’ve been able to get my life back on track as far as resources and spirituality. My faith has definitely been renewed in different ways and opportunities. I just feel so blessed to have run across it.”

He grew up Catholic and attended a Catholic high school, but lost his faith in college. Through encounters at Samaritan House he was able to rediscover his faith, which has made a big difference in his life.

“I was dealt some health issues and was forced to really turn to Jesus because I wasn’t in control of the situation, and I wanted to control it so badly, but couldn’t,” he said. “I finally had to realize that God is in control and is leading this chapter of my life.”

Wheeler plans on attending the Thanksgiving meal this year but also sees the effects and blessings of Samaritan House far beyond any single day.

“I just think that for people who were in the situation that I was in, it is such a great resource and tool to have in this city, that these people are here to help. If you really allow [them] and God to work in your life and just take a step back, it’s amazing to see how He really, really personally touches people’s lives here. It’s really amazing to watch,” he said.

Likewise, Dyer has seen the impact Samaritan House has on people who find themselves in difficult situations and face homelessness. Having worked on hundreds of stories in her career as a journalist, she has encountered different organizations that serve those who are homeless but found something distinctive at Samaritan House.

“There is something about Samaritan House. There are other places that families can go, but once they get to Samaritan House, something changes,” Dyer said. “They have someone who believes in them. They are where they need to be to get where they want to go.”

With the holidays approaching and as people thoughtfully consider how they can give back to those in need this season, Maestas offered an encouragement.

“It is so beautiful to want to give back on the day we are supposed to be really grateful. But if we are truly looking at service the way Jesus did, people need help and people to be reminded of their dignity every single day of the year, and at Samaritan House we have volunteer opportunities every single day of the year.”

COMING UP: Family finds fresh start at Samaritan House

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Andrea and her three children were out of options.

“I had no money, no car, no credit, no husband, no college education, no job, no financial stability,” said Andrea. “My faith and my children were all I had.”

The lack of necessities resulted from abusive and damaging relationships that left the family on their own.

“I found myself a single mother with PTSD, with two autistic children and a baby,” said Andrea. “I was unprepared.”

Andrea struggled to find work because it required finding childcare for her kids — one that was equipped to handle children with special needs — and she couldn’t afford it.

Unexpected costs and time-consuming issues that come with parenthood made holding down a consistent job tough. The jobs Andrea did take on — from babysitting to housecleaning to working at fast food restaurants — didn’t pay the bills.

“It all wasn’t quite enough to keep our heads above water,” said Andrea.

When Andrea and her family eventually lost their home in Colorado Springs, they moved in with relatives in Denver, where things didn’t go as smoothly as the family hoped.

“All parties involved knew that it was a temporary living situation, but I never imagined we’d be asked to leave so soon and without warning,” said Andrea. “It hurt my heart.”

Living in a new city without a home, Andrea desperately searched online for help.

“These are the circumstances that led me and my family to the Samaritan House.”

‘A blessing from God’

Samaritan House is a shelter run by Catholic Charities that provides a safe environment for people who are homeless. It offers meals, shelter, security, case management and individual guidance to help those it serves get on a path to success.

Samaritan House receives a percentage of funding from the Archbishop’s Catholic Appeal, and the lives of families like Andrea’s are transformed through its gifts.

“The new start my family has been able to make here in Denver is a blessing from God — heavily due to the program we went through at the Samaritan House,” said Andrea.

The family that was once overwhelmed by the daunting challenges of life was suddenly overwhelmed by the goodness of mankind.

“Love and compassion were available and obvious throughout the entire facility,” said Andrea. “The children and I always felt safe and protected.”

Andrea worked with a case manager who helped her reach short- and long-term goals related to employment, housing, healthcare and education. She was able to search for jobs, houses and other necessities because of the computers available inside Samaritan House’s resource room.

The Samaritan House is a shelter run by Catholic Charities that provides meals, shelter, security, case management and individual guidance to help those it serves get on a path to success.

Andrea’s kids loved the meals they shared and the activities they participated in — including hiking, swimming, sports camps, birthday parties and youth groups.

“All of my three kids never once felt ‘homeless’ during our time at Samaritan House,” said Andrea. “In fact, they referred to the program as home …”

Daily life in the program also required focus and discipline from the family, which Andrea says has helped them in their fresh start.

“The required sobriety, savings goals, curfew and chores we had to do while in the program made it so much easier for me to establish a healthy structure and way of life in our current home,” she said.

Renewed faith

One of the greatest gifts Samaritan House granted Andrea and her family is a restored faith in God.

“Most importantly, the greatness of faith in our Lord and savior Jesus Christ that has been restored in my children and myself is much due to the faith-based care and guidance we received at the Samaritan House,” Andrea said.

The difference the program made in the family’s spiritual life is apparent.

“We smile more, hold our heads higher, walk with more confidence,” she said. “The strength the children developed through last year’s struggles resounds in their personalities, schoolwork and in their precious eyes when they commit to a goal.

“A spiritual growth in the children is clear to me as well,” she added. “They pray more, read the Bible more, ask questions about it all and seem to have an understanding that was previously lacking. I, too, have a zeal for the Lord that perhaps had been put on hold often in the past.”

Andrea and her family now have their own home. Her children flourish in sports, independence, interest in education and compassion for others. Andrea has hopes for getting a degree to be a music therapist and eventually starting her own nonprofit devoted to serving the community and those in need through art and creativity.

Andrea remains grateful and deeply inspired by those who served her family during a time of dire need.

“I treasure and thank the Lord for my experience at the Samaritan House,” she said.

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