October 18, 2013

‘Believe me, I understand’

Former resident and longtime employee exemplifies Holy Family Shelter’s mission of serving those in need

Clem Maga, center, shares a laugh with Bill Bickel and Christina Davis during a break in work at Holy Family Shelter in Indianapolis. After living for a month at the shelter in 1988 with his wife and six children, Maga has spent the past 25 years working at the shelter. Bickel is the shelter’s director, and Davis is the shelter’s director of operations. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Clem Maga, center, shares a laugh with Bill Bickel and Christina Davis during a break in work at Holy Family Shelter in Indianapolis. After living for a month at the shelter in 1988 with his wife and six children, Maga has spent the past 25 years working at the shelter. Bickel is the shelter’s director, and Davis is the shelter’s director of operations. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

When the drunk, abusive husband showed up at Holy Family Shelter demanding to see his wife, Clem Maga stood his ground, turned the man away and called the police.

When the young, expectant mother went into labor at the Indianapolis shelter in the early morning hours, Maga helped arrange for her to get to the hospital.

When the phone calls come during the middle of the night from someone seeking refuge at the Catholic Charities shelter, Maga answers and does his best to help the person or family find a place to stay as soon as possible.

As an employee of the shelter for 25 years, Maga has added the unofficial job titles of protector, counselor and facilitator to the maintenance and security work that he performs during his shift from 11 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. five days a week.

“What he does is far more than maintenance and security,” says Bill Bickel, the shelter’s director. “Clem really exemplifies everything good about Holy Family Shelter—compassion, integrity, empathy and a commitment to serve folks in need. That doesn’t show up in pushing a mop, buffing floors or cleaning the building. But we are who we are because of Clem.”

And Maga would be the first to say that he is who he is today because of the way that Holy Family Shelter gave him, his wife, Mary, and their six children a fresh start in life 25 years ago.

‘You feel for them as a human being’

Clem Maga receives a 2013 Catholic Charities Summit Award from Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin on Oct. 9. The award honors Catholic Charities staff members who have “gone above and beyond in living the mission and values of Catholic Charities in serving those in need, especially the poor.” (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Clem Maga receives a 2013 Catholic Charities Summit Award from Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin on Oct. 9. The award honors Catholic Charities staff members who have “gone above and beyond in living the mission and values of Catholic Charities in serving those in need, especially the poor.” (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Maga still remembers the pain and the hardship of being evicted from a trailer court with his family when he couldn’t pay the rent because he had pneumonia.

“The landlord wouldn’t wait on the rent, and we got kicked out. All the kids were little at the time,” he recalls, wincing. “I felt real bad. You didn’t know where you were going. We couldn’t get in the shelter right away, so we stayed with my sister-in-law and her husband until we could.”

During the month his family stayed at the shelter in 1988, Maga found a job as a busboy in a restaurant. He also helped around the shelter, cleaning the dining room after breakfast and lunch.

“It meant a lot to me to bring my family to the shelter,” he says. “My family had a place to stay, and they were safe in the evening when I went to work. Being at the shelter also gave me time to think. It made me a different person.”

The experience also made him a more compassionate person—a quality that has shined through repeatedly since he was hired at the shelter a month after his family moved there.

The shelter’s director at the time—Daughter of Charity Sister Nancy Crowder—needed someone for a third shift to clean the building. Taking the job, Maga saw his pay increase from the $2.50 an hour he made as a busboy to $4.80 an hour. His understanding of what it meant to arrive at the shelter scared and desperate had also increased.

“I understand where people are coming from,” he says as he relaxes in the shelter after another night shift. “One lady called here, telling me how hard it was for her. I told her, ‘I understand.’ She said, ‘No, you don’t. I’m scared.’ I told her, ‘Believe me, I understand.’ You feel for them as a human being. I don’t see them as homeless people. They’ve just come across bad luck. It’s all about trying to help people.”

That sense of compassion hasn’t faded in Maga’s 25 years of work at the shelter.

“Clem is the face of hospitality to our residents in the evening, keeping them safe and feeling comfortable,” Bickel says. “About 25 percent of the families that are here are victims of domestic violence. Clem does a great job of knowing who should be in the building and who shouldn’t be. We’re fortunate that Clem is here to care for the 22 families here. That’s a huge responsibility.”

Considering that 350 families are helped at Holy Family Shelter each year, Bickel figures that Maga has been involved in the care and safety of nearly 9,000 families during his 25 years.

Another strong measure of the impact that Maga has made at the shelter is revealed through a story shared by Christina Davis, the shelter’s director of operations.

The favorite part of the job

Five years ago, Davis was at a crossroads in her life, struggling to choose between two jobs—the shelter position and another job that she was leaning toward taking. During that time, she met Maga as he was receiving an award for his 20 years of service to the shelter.

“Being there for that moment made it obvious to me that good things were happening here, and it was something I wanted to be part of,” Davis says. “I feel totally blessed to get to work with Clem. He has such a strong passion for the mission of Holy Family Shelter. It comes out in everything he does.”

Maga was honored again on Oct. 9 with the 2013 Catholic Charities Summit Award, an award that celebrates staff members “who have gone above and beyond in living the mission and values of Catholic Charities in serving those in need, especially the poor.” (Related: Summit Award winners honored for commitment to serving the poor)

The honor touched Maga. Yet it still doesn’t compare to what he considers one of his favorite parts of working at the shelter.

“I always like it when residents tell me they’re moving out,” he says. “I tell them, ‘Good luck. I hope everything goes well.’ It means a lot to me when I know they got a place to go.”

Twenty-five years ago, Holy Family Shelter served as a temporary home for Maga and his family when they desperately needed one. Now, it has become a home for him.

“Every day, I think how blessed I am to be at this shelter,” he says. “Twenty-five years ago, I didn’t know where we were going to end up, but everything is meant to be for a reason. It was meant for me to get this job.

“Mary says all the time that the shelter is my second home. The people I deal with here and the people I work with are like family. You do everything you can to help them. This place means the world to me.” †

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