Read Our Stories

In some ways, the pandemic has opened up new ways for Villa Maria to make community-based behavioral mental health services accessible to clients. Still, Crystal Nixon, the Fallstaff Behavioral health Clinic’s office manager, misses her face-to-face interactions with clients.

“Telehealth has been wonderful, and it will exist in our future, especially for clients with transportation issues and for the elderly,” she said. “But face-to-face and over the phone are different.”

Having been raised in a tiny hamlet in South Carolina, Crystal knows firsthand the barriers her clients have to even knowing that such services are available to them.

“If we had mental health problems in the family or the community back down South, it wasn’t addressed, or even talked about,” she remembered. “The challenge, I believe, for a lot of our families is that they don’t know that there is help out there. Having our clinic here in this westside neighborhood, it shows that we actually care, that they can come to us and say, ‘I need help.’”

During Crystal’s 19-year journey with Catholic Charities, she has gained a deep reservoir of insights and skills that she uses every day in her leadership role at the clinic. She started in housekeeping at the Villa Maria residential treatment center for children.

“It was an amazing experience to walk a mile in their shoes. I’ve learned so much and grown tremendously from the families and children we served.”

Crystal’s dedication led to being tapped for a positon at the center’s front desk. Eventually, she moved to the Fallstaff location as administrative assistant, and finally, with encouragement from her supervisor, landed the job as the clinic’s office manager.

Staying in her position as other staff came and went, Crystal built relationships with clients.

“It made me feel I had a purpose,” she said. “I was persistent. I told families, ‘I have no intention of leaving.’ It was no longer a job, but an obligation for me to be there, to make sure they knew they were wanted. A lot of our families are in poverty-driven, unsafe areas, so dealing with that on top of mental health issues can be really challenging.”

Crystal is proud of the level of wraparound services and life skill-building the clinic is able to make available to help the clinic’s clients improve their lives. For now, the clinic team is still working remotely. “We do virtual meetings to encourage each other. My supervisor is really good with keeping us all in touch and to maintain that bond, to help each other with the work we do. We’re getting it done.”

Barbara Royster thrives in her role as a go-to resident at Village Crossroads. One of the first to move into the new facility in 2013, she made sure her apartment was on the first floor. The 79-year-old mother of five adult children, grandmother and great-grandmother to many, and active member of her church just loves being at the center of the action wherever she is.

“I’ve always liked a lot of people,” she said.

Her volunteer spirit is strong. She was a regular visitor at her grandmother’s nursing home, and continued visiting long after her grandmother’s passing.

“I got hooked on being nice to the people there,” she shared. “I just liked being around the people and helping out.”

She brought the same spirit to Village Crossroads and relished convivial programs like the van service for twice-weekly shopping trips with friends. Service Coordinators Karvis Higgins and Theresa Watson were thankful for Barbara’s help and initiative. They tapped Barbara to be a leader in the community’s Eating Together program. She initiated and led a weekly Bible study which attracted nearly a dozen residents of all faiths.

“She’s very thoughtful,” Theresa explained. “When a neighbor was sick, she fed her cat. She’ll check in on a friend.”

Karvis added, For Eating Together, she was always there early to set up the room, service the meals. She was helping us train volunteers to start up the program in another building. At the start of the pandemic, when we needed help giving out meals, she was eager to help.”

With seniors among the most vulnerable to COVID, the community took no chances, and were proactive in keeping residents safe.

“When this thing happened, they had to lock up the room we used for Bible study,” Barbara said. “All the other community rooms were locked. Before this happened, I was enjoying myself.”

With daily meal deliveries, weekly grocery boxes, and creative ideas like plans for “inside out trick-or-treating” at Halloween, the service coordinators have worked harder than ever to combat social isolation among residents like Barbara, and find new ways to provide services they depend on. Pen-pal programs with student from Johns Hopkins and University of Maryland have created new connections for seniors who are missing visits from children and grandchildren. But everyone is looking forward to the day when it’s safe for the community to gather again.

“I keep saying,” said Barbara, “This, too, shall pass.”

Much of Karen Scheu’s life has been shaped by two loves: nursing and the Spanish language. Today she is a family nurse practitioner on the faculty at the University of Maryland School of Nursing. But her passion is service immigrant neighbors through the Esperanza Center.

In addition to being a longtime volunteer in its health clinic, Karen was instrumental in helping the center implement the innovative Volunteers in Medicine model for sustainable free health care. That makes Esperanza one of only 92 VIM clinics in the country.

“For me, what drives this work always has been interacting with my patients,” she explained. “But now I’m also excited to show my students that there is work in health care outside the usual outpatient clinic or hospital, where the rewards include learning about another culture, learning so much more than just the diagnosis of the day.”

Recently, a medical student who had shadowed Karen at Esperanza Center contacted her to say the experience had inspired him to do family medicine rotations. “He wants to work in a community setting,” she shared. “Our patients and my colleagues showed him a new way. I love that!”

Karen serves Spanish-speaking patients while studying at Columbia University and when she lived in Camden, New Jersey. She found Esperanza after she moved to Baltimore. Her tenure as a volunteer at the center has been longer than that of any member of the clinic staff; Karen was recognized with the 2019 Sister Mary Neal award for outstanding volunteers.

“My love for this population and my desire to help them came from experiencing the kindness of strangers on my own travels,” she reflected. “There’s something special about welcoming a stranger to your country, and hearing their stories. Hearing about the violence that led my patients to come here… I know I would do the same thing if I felt my children’s lives were at risk.”

Racial and social inequities in health care are not new, but the pandemic has brought them into sharp focus. “At Esperanza, we’re always addressing those inequalities, but today our population is among those being hit the hardest by COVID-19,” Karen said. “They are the essential workers, driving busses, working in meat plants, and they often live in crowded conditions. But I am always astounded by the resilience of this population, and their close-knit sense of family.”

“They care for one another,” she went on. “There is something about what I’ve learned from them that makes me want to serve them, a desire to see humans be in a better place and a desire to help them get there.”

Make a Donation

We are excited to celebrate all of the women that help further Catholic Charities’ mission.

Your support makes a difference in the lives of Marylanders in need.