“Three decades of service and an enduring mission”
The year was 1993. At the time, Saint Barnabas, then located at 64th and Haverford, functioned as an emergency shelter for women and children. That was the first year that Gerry Mckenzie (Mr. Gerry) became involved as a volunteer — and he has not stopped since.
Almost 30 years later, it’s clear that time has done little to Mr. Gerry’s memories of his early days of volunteering. At the time, he quickly became involved with initiatives to provide the children in the shelter with Christmas gifts. “I’ll never forget that first Christmas Eve,” he said, smiling. “Each child made a wishlist. We had caravans of cars and vans filled with gifts and food. And they were able to have a real Christmas.” This tradition continued for each and every holiday to come.
But Mr. Gerry did not wait for holidays to spread cheer, and his service was not confined to the walls of St. Barnabas Mission. He stayed busy organizing regular activities and outings for the children – from taking them to trampoline parks, to teaching them how to bake, to bringing them to the ocean for deep-sea fishing (one of his favorite pastimes). He quickly became an integral part of ECS, dedicating time and talent to the mission and all whom he encountered.
As a retired barber, one of his favorite activities has always been giving new haircuts to the women and the children. “It was really meaningful because they looked forward to it, and I gave them the full experience,” he said, beaming, adding that he’d always have candy and cookies ready for the children. “A fresh haircut goes a long way when you’re living in a shelter. It makes you feel good about yourself. Having dignity is important.”
Mr. Gerry recalled another important function of St. Barnabas: providing a safe place for children to talk about their feelings. “Kids would sit in a circle and they’d learn how to talk openly about what they’re going through. Oftentimes, a child would realize that they weren’t alone - that they weren’t the only one in the room who had a parent addicted to drugs. They weren’t the only one in the room who had been abused. This was a safe place for them to talk about really challenging things that they’d experience.” Much like the present-day Saint Barnabas Community Resource Center, these children would be assisted by counselors and other professionals who would address topics like drugs, peer pressure, violence, academic struggles, and other challenges and barriers.
One of the most rewarding aspects of his vocation is seeing kids grow up, and oftentimes, encountering them unexpectedly years later. Laughing, he said, “I hear all the time, ‘Mr. Gerry, thank you for taking me fishing as a kid’!” He recalled a recent instance when he was approached by a young woman who was working in a store. “She said, ‘Mr. Gerry, I remember you. I was in your program as a kid. You’d always take us on trips, and you signed me up for a track camp because I loved running. But what meant the most was the way you taught me how to talk about my emotions without letting them consume me. That’s gotten me through so many difficult times. And I never got to thank you for all that you’ve done for me’”. The young woman was in college after receiving a track scholarship to Temple University, has written several books, and is going on to get her Master’s degree.
“It’s been a journey,” Mr. Gerry said, referring to the past 29 years of service. “I am blessed to volunteer [at ECS]. I enjoy it but I also know that it pleases God. I have a responsibility to my community. It’s about filling people with hope, helping them out however I am able, recognizing that they have their pride to maintain and making sure that they feel comfortable. You need to have empathy and stay humble.”
And whether it’s planning events, preparing meals, teaching children new hobbies and skills, or helping out at community fairs…”I do it all with love,” he said, beaming. “Now when I prepare dinners, I always say, ‘This is a scoop of love. This is a scoop of compassion. This is a scoop of hope.’ I don’t know who will end up getting the dinner, but I hope that they enjoy every scoop and feel the love.”
He added, “There’s so much joy being in service to others. I always say, ‘Get out the merry, Gerry, and go make someone’s day. Go be a blessing to someone else, because that’s what it’s all about”.