How did Gardenia House come to be?

The idea for Gardenia House originated when Neil Shister and his wife, Catherine (Cait) Clarke Shister began visiting Sister Rosa Alvarez in Georgetown. Sister Rosa and her Carmelite Sisters of the Poor peers (all in their seventies) serve the low income and immigrant community in Georgetown, many of whom work in the local poultry processing plant. Sister Rosa’s specific charge is caring for women in the community, mothers—many of whom are barely older than teen-agers—and their children. Helping care for them can mean driving them to pre-natal and medical care, assisting with school enrollment, addressing immigration problems and—in dire circumstances—finding housing. It is not uncommon for a woman—abandoned, abused, on her own—to find herself and her children without shelter. In such instances, Sister Rosa intercedes to help.

The needs of the immigrant population are not being adequately addressed by local government, and the resources of charities in the area are stretched thin. Conditions are often dire, particularly as immigration controls make it impossible to obtain work.

Rosa is renowned in the area to both immigrants and non-immigrants, an angel of mercy and an agent of social empowerment.

Since Cait (while a law student) had volunteered in a soup kitchen in Washington, D.C. run by Sister Rosa, the women had remained in contact. Over the years, Rosa was transferred to Georgetown and would recount stories of the dire straits of single mothers with young children: group living in tiny trailers and in sub-code structures.

Through Rosa’s good offices, Catherine and Neil adopted a baby from his birth mother in the Georgetown community in 2002; in so doing, they became more directly committed to contributing to improving living conditions there.

Rosa had long sought a residence to house single mothers, who had often been abused or abandoned Cait and Neil began investigating the possibility of purchasing a house to provide accommodations for low income single mothers that would be administered by Sister Rosa and her Roman Catholic Religious Order. In October 2006, they bought a newly constructed modular house, reasonably priced and ideally suited for the purposes of a communal residence, with four bedrooms and two baths. There were also two open eaves, which were immediately finished to provide additional bedrooms.

The house was surrounded by a plot of hard pan clay which they subsequently sodded. A swing set was installed, and a six foot security fence installed around the perimeter of the back yard. Perhaps best of all, it is located in town close to stores and schools and churches, within a five minute walk of Sister Rosa’s office at L’Esperanza, the Spanish community social services center.

On the very day the property closed, Sister Rosa moved a mother and her three young children into the house—all four had all been sleeping on a couch in the rented room from which they were being evicted. Within several months four mothers and a total of seven children ranging in ages from six months to seven years were living in Gardenia House. Clean, attractive furnishings were provided, there was a washer and dryer, even satellite television so residents could watch shows in Spanish.

When Neil and Catherine’s friends and acquaintances learned of Gardenia House, many spontaneously offered to contribute. Many have given clothes, furniture, bedding, books and toys; several have made cash donations. It was this support, and the prospect for additional and on-going support, that prompted Neil and Catherine’s decision to reorganize their program as a nonprofit charity to which tax-deductible contribution could be given. Neil and Catherine believe there is a well-spring of support that can be enlisted to assist this charitable venture.

Thus, Gardenia House, Inc. was created as a Delaware corporation in 2006. A year later the I.R.S. granted Gardenia House Foundation 501(c)(3) status, making charitable gifts to the Foundation tax-deductible.

“Two religiously affiliated resource centers have been established in Georgetown to assist immigrants. La Casita, and the more recently formed L’Esperanza, provide a multitude of services to immigrants ranging from English language tutoring, to transporting immigrants to Philadelphia or Newark INS offices, to helping immigrants fill out asylum application forms. Clergy appear to comprise the backbone of institutions serving immigrants in the area.”

Immigrants in the Delmarva Poultry Processing Industry: The Changing Face of Georgetown, Delaware and Environs, By Roger Horowtiz and Mark J. Miller, http://www.udel.edu/poscir/mjmiller/georgetown.htm.

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