published on October 9, 2017 - 11:35 AM
Written by The Business Journal Staff
The day after a gunman opened fire in downtown Fresno this April, killing two of their clients and a PG&E worker, the staff of Catholic Charities in Fresno met to discuss their next course of actions
“We were not targeted,” said Ashlee Wolf, development and marketing coordinator for Catholic Charities. “We were in the path of somebody who had darkness in his heart.”
“We kind of came together at 6:00 in the morning and said: ‘what do we do?’” said Kelly Lilles, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Fresno. “And they said: ‘we’re going to serve our clients. They’re outside lining up. They’re here to support us and they still need assistance.’”
Instead of shutting down, the charity group served over 100 families that day. Nearly six months later, they haven’t slowed down, and Lilles said that it’s “business as usual.”
“Out of the sadness came some goodness,” she said.
Founded in 1968, the Catholic Charities office in Fresno is part of the diocese of the same name, which stretches from Merced to Kern County. On any given day, they serve approximately 100 to 120 families and distribute 5,000 to 7,000 pounds of food.
The food packages provided vary in size depending on the number of people per family, but the packages carry enough food to last five days.
Their services, however, are not exclusively for Catholics. Instead, Wolf stated that their doors are open for all.
“We are a faith-based organization and that’s how we work and how we best serve our clients,” Wolf said, “but we don’t preach, don’t ask our clients their religion, we don’t know who’s Catholic.”
Along with distribution of food, they also provide a financial management service — the Payee Representative Program — in which clients on social and supplemental security can transfer their money to Catholic Charities, who then proceeds to pay their bills for them and provide a stipend from the excess funds.
In another effort to alleviate poverty, Catholic Charities has set up the Career and Education Center in partnership with Fresno City College. Started last year, the diocese has centers in Fresno and Bakersfield.
“We offer classes that get people back to work, so we give them the skills that they need to get back into an office environment,” Wolf said.
“Whether that’s resume writing, working a computer, creating an email, creating a Facebook page… how to answer phones, office etiquette — we teach those skills in this class for our clients.”
After graduating, these students are given a suit from the charity’s thrift store to prepare them for an interview.
“Our goal is to be there for them,” Lilles said, “but if we can teach them how to fish, then they can go out and they can find something to help them be self-sustaining.”
“I love seeing the scope of what goes on here,” said Deanna Driscoll, a volunteer. “I don’t think I would have nearly as much of an idea of the huge scope of services that happen here and the good that happens here if I wasn’t actually on the premises.”
Driscoll, a ballet teacher and a marriage coordinator, volunteers at Catholic Charities once a week. Her position as receptionist often makes her the first person to speak with the organization’s clients.
“Today, I spoke to a woman on the phone who, she just called and she said: ‘can we come here and get food? We don’t have any food,’” Driscoll said. “And I was able to say: ‘yes, get here right away—we have food.’ And you could just hear the relief in her voice that her kids were going to eat tonight.”
Influenced by her work, Driscoll said that her daughter in Alaska is now volunteering as well.
It is this type of work, and the support from their clients, that Lilles attributes to Catholic Charities staying open in the face of tragedy.
“What we’ve noticed is that we have strength in our team,” Lilles said. “And that our team really came together here — our staff and our volunteers — saw that our clients came and rallied around us after the incident happened.”
As for Lilles, she has expressed her own forgiveness towards Kori Ali Muhammad, the alleged shooter.
“I pray for this guy. I prayed for the families that were affected, prayed for the people that were witness to it, prayed for this man’s heart,” Lilles said. “And I don’t think you can pray for someone’s heart if you don’t have forgiveness in your heart.”
As for their future, Lilles stated that Catholic Charities is planning to expand its outreach into rural areas, and that another career center will be opening up in Merced this December.
“And I think when our clients come to Catholic Charities, they’re looking for hope,” Wolf said. “They’re in crisis — we serve those in crisis. And so, then and always, Catholic Charities is a place of hope.”

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