Pathways to Progress (Plus Pizza!): C to C, The Commitment to Community Podcast Series from Oswald
What started over 50 years ago with volunteers sharing PB&J sandwiches to those in need, today the West Side Catholic Center continues to serve over 8,000 community members annually across a diverse span of services, including its newest social enterprise fueling the food industry workforce through the Ohio City Pizzeria. They assist all who come in need of food, clothing, shelter, advocacy, and a path to self-sufficiency, regardless of religious affiliation. My personal connection with the organization, disclosed in the interview, is what opened my eyes to the vast and growing needs that this nonprofit meets for the region. I sat down with Michael Bernot, Director of Advancement, to dig even deeper into what he, fellow staff members, and volunteers, experience in serving these critical causes.
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Schmitz: Hi, this is Christina Capadona-Schmitz and we are back for another episode of C to C the commitment to community podcast from Oswald Companies. Today I am here with Michael Bernot at the West Side Catholic Center and Ohio City Pizzeria. Thanks for being here, Michael.
Bernot: I’m very excited to be here, Christina. Thanks for having me.
Schmitz: Absolutely. So full disclosure, I am on the board and a longtime volunteer with West Side Catholic Center. And that is how I met you, Michael. And that is, that is why I’m here because I know of all the amazing things that this organization does. But I want to let our audience hear from you. Would you mind just sharing a bit about yourself and about the organization?
Bernot: Sure. So I’m Michael Bernot, I am the director of advancement here at the West Side Catholic Center. been in this position for about three and a half years, but familiar with the Center for about half of my lifetime. Since my first volunteer round in the year 2000, I think it was, so that it’s always kind of been in my heart and mind as a place. But the West Side Catholic Center is a social services agency in the Ohio City neighborhood of Cleveland, that serves over 8,000 unique individuals a year through five main programs and over 75 services…
Schmitz: I think what’s what really drew me to the center is that regardless of religious affiliation, regardless of where someone’s at in their life, there are services here for them.
Bernot: It’s true. And you know, the name, the name has a nice legacy to it for 44 years, but we do not cater exclusively to the west side nor the Catholic population, nor are we affiliated with the Diocese of Cleveland or Catholic Charities, we are an independent agency governed by a volunteer board of directors who you serve.
Schmitz: Yes, definitely. Can you share? You said there was about five program areas, what are those areas?
Bernot: So the five program areas I like to explain them as kind of a continuum. It geographically works out if you ever come down to our campus on Lorain Avenue. But we have our Resource Center, which is our basic needs services such as food, clothing, showers, mail, very, very basic needs, and then shelter, which is called the Moriah House here, that goes into our secure housing solutions, which is Rapid Rehousing and a little bit more long-term housing programming for our clients, then into workforce development. And our final and most recently added program is family engagement, which is a wraparound service that kind of touches through the other four programs, but really focuses on the families who come through these and keeping them within our community and our support network after one of those other programs might ensure that.
Schmitz: Thanks for sharing that … I know that this is more than a job for you. It’s a calling… what personally connects you to this opportunity here in your role?
Bernot: So it’s, I really like telling the story. I grew up on the east suburbs of Cleveland kind of removed from the urban environment that we’re in now. But I was always kind of drawn to, you know, the plight of the marginalized. I had a degree in sociology, when I graduated, my parents asked me what I was going to do with that I really didn’t have a clue. But I always kind of got drawn back into, you know, helping these populations or understanding, you know, disparities. You know, to me, I think it’s unacceptable in the world that we live in that people don’t have access to nutritional food and meals, and that people have to make a choice or sacrifice for such things. But back in 2000, my first exposure, the West Side Catholic Center, I was part of the social justice group in high school, and we went on a retreat called the urban plunge and stayed at St. Pat’s parish up the street here for three nights and volunteered at different organizations. And that was my first exposure to the West Side Catholic Center. I remember Terry Garr was our volunteer coordinator. I had the great pleasure of being her boss for a very hot minute break before she retired. Oh, wow. But I came here, I fell in love with the place I never forgot about it. And kind of stumbling into this advancement career. I knew I wanted to work in the nonprofit sector. I wanted purpose more than profit, to be the driving force in my life. And I was able to work it out where, those two things can merge, I can make a living but I can do it doing something that I wake up very proud to do every day. So 18 years later, here I am in the place that I really wanted to be in figured out exactly the best way that I can be of service to that.
Schmitz: That’s a great story. How long have you been with the Center and since you have come on what has changed?
Bernot: So I started, my first day was I think February 5 of 2018. So I’m about three and a half years-ish. And the month after I started, we finalized the purchase of Ohio City Pizzeria and the building that it’s contained in. We have since added the family engagement program as our fifth program broken out budgetarily as its own entity. I feel like a lot, just made it through COVID, every year posts a new and unique challenge in a very unpredictable way. But I’m very grateful, mostly because of the size of our agency, you know, we have this homegrown grassroots feel to us. But we’re big enough to be dangerous and small enough to be agile. And that has lent us to a lot of opportunity. Having a board of directors as competent, caring, and professional and knowledgeable as they are, have really helped guide our decision-making process to make some bold moves and add these different aspects to what we do that fall within our mission.
Schmitz: I do want to talk about The Ohio City Pizzeria. But first, I think something that I think is striking to anyone that gets involved the organization is the volunteer teams, that some span across decades. Talk about that volunteer aspect.
Bernot: I mean, one of one of the things that would people say what’s something unique about here, for the work that you do, I tell people all the time, the West Side Catholic Center exists by the will of the people or, if I want to be a little more cautious about it, I say we’re an eat what we kill agency. We provide our services free of charge, we have no inherent revenue stream that we sell anything from anything like that. So we started so humbly with a group of area priests and nuns. So I see a need for this ministry in the city to cater to this marginalized population, who just brought it back to their parishes out in the suburbs and started accumulating resources down here. So volunteers have been the heart of the West Side Catholic Center since 1977. That started as simply as making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. And now we rely on hundreds of them every month, to help with clothes sorting, donation intake, working in our clothing room, preparing meals, both in our shelter and our resource center, being tutors in our workforce development program. And we’ve even broadened that to make sure that we can kind of appeal to the younger generations and nonprofessionals through our associate board as well, to make sure that they have opportunities out with food pantries and kind of things that will work with their busy schedules and a time in their life when there’s less flexibility.
Schmitz: Definitely, alright, let’s talk about Ohio City Pizzeria. It’s actually… I’m getting hungry thinking about it. It’s almost lunchtime here. But talk about that where we are today.
Bernot: So some of this is not necessarily hearsay. But my understanding is that that Ohio City pizzeria is an existing business that’s been in the neighborhood since 1982. So the neighborhood knew it very well. It, it was the next adjacent property to what all the buildings that we own one Lorain, our previous executive director, Anita Cook, who did a great job here. You know, it was very, very big on the workforce program and saw this great opportunity, and started having those conversations prior to my tenure here and our current executive director, John Litten’s tenure here. But the way that the timing worked out is the opportunity kind of struck right when both of us were newer in these positions, and the business in the building came up for sale. So we jumped at the opportunity, if nothing else, to have the asset of the property in Ohio City, but discerned with the board of directors for the better part of a year to decide how we could best utilize this as a service to our clients. So we reopened it in July of 2019 with the intent of making it an extension of our workforce development program and providing employment opportunities, whether that’s just entry level or getting people back into the workforce, who would have been chronically underemployed never employed or just needed an opportunity. In the last two years, it’s been an interesting time for that; COVID, restaurants and paid staffing, issues. And we’re really in an exciting point right now, because we’ve retooled portions of our workforce development programs to forge a stronger linear transition between being becoming job ready and beginning employment there. So we’re on the cusp of kind of launching that new series of culinary training through workforce development to have people pretty job ready the day that they start their first day as an employee….the pizzeria certainly and as I’ve learned, through the other food service aspects of The Center, is bringing it all together.
So one of the big things, and we’ve gotten some very generous funding to help us with, you know this, quote unquote upgrade to the program, we joined a national network called the Catalyst Kitchen network, which provides kind of a more uniform model of workforce training in the culinary arts, and some good curriculum. It also enabled us to hire a culinary instructor that’s going to spearhead some of these classes and teach some of the finer skills beyond the basic soft skills that we focused on workforce development primarily before. So people will come in job ready with knife skills, you know, some knowledge of food safety and food handling a servesafe certification, which will make them much more desirable and employable on an application to any restaurant. As we’re kind of seeing with current times, there’s a lot of opportunity in positions and job openings there. So, for us, bringing people into Ohio City Pizzeria it, we do see it as a stepping stone. If there’s longevity, that’s great. We love having that continuity. But you know, we’re doing our job, right if people come in, get a better job, take that better job… creating a wheel where we have the ability to backfill and create more and more opportunity and people coming in and out. But still having the support of us even once they leave.
Schmitz: Yeah, definitely…The Westside Catholic Center throughout COVID, I know we could spend a whole episode on how you responded and how, through warming centers, cooling centers, I mean, everything in between to keep to keep everyone moving forward on their path of progress. What’s next and how can people get involved today and for the future? We’re all in this, planning our comeback, or putting the energy around the comeback…
Bernot: Through COVID, we learned a lot about ourselves, I think in many ways, and more than anything else, I learned that I have one of the greatest jobs in the world, because all I get to do is talk about how great my staff and co-workers are, and the amazing things that they did and how they are such purpose driven people that really rose to a challenge to do exactly what we said we were going to do. But for the greater community that’s involved. As I said, we exist by the will of the people in this amazing support community that’s composed of 1000s of people and corporations and organizations, and foundations that not only provide us with funding and money, but the other resources that we need, we’re able to do all these things free of charge, because donors… the stuff that people have the presence of mind to say … I could throw this away, I could resell this or I could donate this. So clothing and household items. And, you know, it’s always worth a call or a checking or an email to say, would you guys be able to use this? Before you think that…trashes might be treasured. Right now we’re asking people for tents and air mattresses, because there’s so many personal stories that we hear from our clients here, that are things that those of us who have never been in such positions might never think of.
So donating items, attending our events, which are great ones. As you know, you’ve helped me many times on our 5k Pancake Run, which is a beautiful, scenic run three miles, and coming back in person this year…our wonderful associate Board of young professionals puts on a great beer festival called Sips & Swigs that’s happening on the same day as the pancake run this year. And we have our big signature gala event, which I pride myself on not being like other nonprofit gala events, because my philosophy is why don’t we make it the best part of the wedding and not the boring part where you’re stuck at the white tablecloth with the cousins that you only see once a year, let’s make it free flowing. So we do that in November down at the Marriott. And you don’t have to make a black tie, you come as you are, but some people prefer dress up, I’m more of a jeans and jacket guy myself.
But beyond that volunteers are really at the core of what we do here. And we have ample opportunities. Our general operating hours are during business hours. So the majority of our regularly scheduled volunteers are recent retirees or retirees in general. But we do have some weekend opportunities, some evening opportunities here and there. And the food pantries on the weekends are usually I think what really draws a lot of people because it’s a lot of direct contact with the clients. And I think that it’s it’s a very humbling and learning experience that what we always tell people is a lot of the volunteers leave saying that they got more out of this than what they thought they were going to be giving to clients. So it’s a really, it’s a really deep and moving and purposeful time to be here.
Schmitz: That’s a great way to sum up. I think anyone that has an experience here, whatever that may be. So we’ll definitely encourage people to check out your website, please follow on social media share, share the information and find other ways to get involved.
Bernot: And you know, I’m here, I’m here all the time. So if anybody has questions they can think of, find me on the website and shoot me an email or I’m happy to answer any questions. You know, it’s, really a joy in my life to be here at this time in space, and be a part of the Westside Catholic Center and all the exciting things that are happening in the services that we provide. So I’m happy to talk to people about it. Any chance I get!
Schmitz: All right. Well, thanks so much for your time, Michael.
Photos courtesy of The West Side Catholic Center
This transcript has been edited for clarity and web format.
Introducing the C to C podcast, an oscast by Oswald production
Commitment to Community is a core value of Oswald; it’s the foundation of who we are and the purpose behind all we do. The CtoC podcast provides a platform for nonprofit partners to share their stories and discuss the critical issues facing their clients. Our goal: create a halo effect of service and support, inspiring our audiences to align with causes that speak to them and take action in their companies and communities.
Hosted by Christina Capadona-Schmitz, VP and director of marketing communications and leader for community engagement, this podcast series features in-depth interviews and highlights the good works happening throughout our communities.