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Southwest Emergency Services (SWES)
(Originally published in the Relay Improvement Association Newsletter, v. 14 no. 1)
One January evening 32 years ago, in the small, cold basement of the Catholic Community at Relay, Betty Okonski and Mem Quaid met with five volunteers from area churches to see how they could more efficiently and effectively serve those in need in the 21227 zip code community. They resolved to find one central location where churches could refer those who came to them with requests for help. That night Southwest Emergency Services (SWES) was born. Initially, the Catholic Community at Relay provided a space in the basement. Outgrowing that space, they moved to Arbutus United Methodist Church, and then, through the generosity of Ed St. John of St. John Properties, they were able to afford to build one addition and then another as donations and needs continued to grow. Today, Betty, Mem, and a cadre of volunteers serve the community from this expanded facility.
SWES has a distribution system that helps meet the physical needs of hundreds of people in the community, especially families, each month. Requests are fulfilled mostly through the generous donations of the nineteen churches that support SWES and through other people and businesses in the community. Sometimes it is a request for monetary assistance: rent, electricity, mortgage, heating oil. Each person or family can be helped financially only once a year, and proof must be provided an eviction notice, a BGE letter that the heat or electricity will be turned off, a prescription that needs to be filled.
Food, clothing, furniture, and household items are distributed through vouchers to those in most need, but clothing is also now sold to anyone who can pay the very minimal cost. The thrift shop model was adopted two years ago to address the problem of some people cleaning out the racks of free clothing and selling them the next week at flea markets. This turned out to be a wise move because the proceeds from the items sold are recycled right back into resources to meet the needs of those who come for help. SWES now even has a shower for the homeless to clean up before looking for work.
This past December, SWES invited 255 families that have been referred by area schools, churches, the health department, and social services. SWES gave out seventyseven live Christmas trees (bought by Delegate Jim Malone), sixtyfive artificial trees, 170 turkeys bought through the Maryland Food Bank and boxes of food for Christmas dinners, fiftyfive boxes of fixings for baking, vouchers for twentyfive dollars worth of brandnew toys, and hats, gloves, and underwear. It was a wonderful event.
Betty Okonski takes very little credit for the organization's success: When you look at its humble beginnings and see all the obstacles that have been overcome, you have to see the hand of God in it; says Betty, I work for him.
So how can we as a community help? Betty identifies these areas:
Monetary donations are the number one need, says Betty. Keeping clients in their homes and safe and warm is the highest priority. 93% of all money that comes in to SWES is used to help the clients, and, since SWES is a 501(c)(3) taxexempt nonprofit organization, all monetary donations are tax deductible.
A direct donation of food to SWES is important because any food from the Maryland Food Bank must be purchased. The best donations are canned tuna, peanut butter, and mac and cheese.
Clothing needs include gloves (including brown work gloves), winter coats, old clean towels, toilet paper, and toiletry items.
Volunteers to work at the facility are needed, even one day a week, and people with trucks (and muscle) to help load or move items.
The community is also encouraged to shop at the thrift store when possible. Most items are high quality and very low cost, and the proceeds are all recycled back in to helping clients.
For more information, please contact SWES at 410.247.8154.