West Allis — There is a one coat limit at Good Samaritan Outreach Center in West Allis.
"We only allow one coat per family per visit because we're so short on warm coats," explained Mary Ellen Promersberger, 79, one of about 30 volunteers at the center, 5924 W. Burnham St.
Since 1985, the center has offered food, clothes and household goods to needy area residents. Staffed primarily by retirees, the shelter is supported with donations from neighbors and area churches, including Mount Hope Lutheran Church at 8633 W. Beecher St.
Despite their generosity, the center is almost always short on winter coats.
"That's been a problem from the beginning," Promersberger said. "And it can be quite a situation at times because you have a mom who needs a coat and a child who needs a coat. It's quite heart-breaking. … I would love to see a whole rack full of coats and be able to give two or three to a family instead of one."
Rules of necessity
Promersberger joined the center nearly 25 years ago, back when founder Al Knies could be found bent over a magnifying glass as he checked people's phone and electric bills or whatever bit of mail they had to confirm they lived in the area.
Rules still apply.
Once residency is verified, people can visit the center once every 30 days. Food is packed based on family size, and, except for the coats, people can take as many clothes as they need.
The rules might seem unfair, said volunteer Elaine Ritzka, 54, of West Milwaukee. But they're meant to make sure everyone who needs help can get at least some of the shelter's resources.
That, Ritzka said, is a challenge that seems bigger every day, especially for a shelter that covers an area that extends to Wisconsin Avenue to the north, 27th Street to the east and the county lines to the south and west. In November alone, the center served nearly 775 households.
"We have from all walks of life, all age ranges," Ritzka said as she took a break from unloading a truck full of donations. "We have elderly on fixed income. We have very young mothers. We have middle aged. There is a lot of need out there and a lot of situations that the average person might not be aware of."
A touch of warmth
Promersberger recently met a woman who lost her home because she couldn't pay her rent. The woman cried as she explained that she had two children, ages 6 and 10, and the only work she could find was shoveling snow.
Promersberger cringed. It was early December and no snow had fallen. On top of that, the woman said, she had no warm clothes.
"I was hoping it wouldn't snow much this year, but now I hope it does to give this poor woman some work. We have stories like that all the time," Promersberger said.
By the time Promersberger took the woman around the center, she was ready to withstand the cold.
"I found everything she needed, which I would not normally have been able to do," Promersberger said. "I found leather gloves with a nice lining and knit cap and a scarf and two or three warm sweaters and snow pants, which we never have. She had a coat, but it wasn't a heavy one, so we loaded her with sweaters to keep her warm."
Kathy Schultz doesn't volunteer at the outreach center. She has trouble walking, which makes it tough for her to sort supplies and unload donation trucks.
But through her work at Mount Hope church, Schultz has helped ensure that Good Samaritan continues to get warm sweaters and canned goods and school supplies.
"I've been known to make a fool of myself for the various activities we've done," said Schultz, 63, of West Allis. "Years ago, I waived underwear from the pulpit when we had 'Undie Sunday.' "
Most days, Schultz can get away with a sign and three words: "I need help."
The lion's share and more
Other times, she lets a lion do the work for her.
"Feeding the Lion" began after a parishioner brought in a wheeled box painted with a lion's face. Where the mouth should be, there is a hole.
Each Sunday, children drop donations into the lion's mouth. Every Tuesday, that food goes to Good Samaritan.
The center has no official connection to the church; Good Samaritan is an independent non-profit. But the congregation's support, along with other churches and businesses in the area, has become a lifeline - one that Schultz is proud to be part of.
"People say, 'Oh, it's so good that you brought the food here.' And we say, 'No. You get a sandwich, but we get the feeling of being useful and doing God's work."
How to help
WHERE: Good Samaritan Outreach Center, 5924 W. Burnham St., West Allis
WHEN: The center is open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Donations are also accepted during those hours.
WHAT: Needed items include food, clothes, household goods, paper and plastic bags, money.
MORE INFO: To volunteer, call the center at (414) 541-7668, or Mary Ellen Promersberger at (262) 784-1220. To donate toys through Mount Hope Lutheran Church, call Kathy Schultz at (414) 543-4911.
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