McCartan and her volunteers create a 'home' for the homeless

January 9, 2011 

Editor's note: This is the second of three columns about special people in our community.

For 87-year-old Clarice Mc-Cartan, it was a chance encounter at age 16 with the renowned social activist Dorothy Day that changed her life forever.

Day was a journalist and devout Catholic committed to social justice issues, and well on her way to being considered for canonization by the church, when she came to Cleveland, Ohio, and spoke to McCartan’s high school class. Day was opening one of her many “houses of hospitality” in the city and invited students to come down and see what all the fuss was about.

Only McCartan and another sophomore took up Day’s invitation and began helping the poor and homeless. Since that day, McCartan has followed her own path of social action that has led her to Drexel House in Olympia. When the transitional housing project opened in March of 2007, McCartan had already retired here from a professorial career at Washington State University.

“I decided they needed a volunteer coordinator,” she chuckles. “So I just started doing it and recruited about 40 willing victims.”

McCartan’s volunteers do many things for Drexel House, but none more important than staging a monthly dinner for residents. Since its opening, she has organized her work crew of friends, solicited home-cooked food, brought in musicians and directed the “cleaner-uppers.”

Every month, she invites a community leader or two to the dinner — someone she feels should know about the good work being done at Drexel House. She introduces them to the residents in the customary speech she gives before each dinner.

“The residents all look at me as ‘grandma’ now, so I get away with murder,” she says.

The Drexel House residents, who may be permanently or temporarily homeless, didn’t know at first what to make of McCartan and her merry band of volunteers, but they’ve all become friends over the years.

“It’s a wonderful thing for me. It’s a connection (to the real world), so I’m not sitting in a cocoon of my own,” she says. “And, it seems to make a difference to the residents.”

The concept of “home” as a primary need is close to McCartan’s heart. The first stop in a busy daily routine belying her age is to visit her special-needs grandson every morning.

“He’s so adorable, and he’s opened my eyes to another way to be human,” she says.

But it was the befriending of an ex-prisoner while teaching at WSU that really opened her eyes to what circumstances can bring a person to becoming homeless.

A large number of homeless people are mentally ill, and some have had unimaginably awful backgrounds. Some are angry, or had a streak of bad luck. Some have just fallen apart.

“There are so many ways that life is unequal. There are so many paths to homelessness,” she says.

So why does an educated woman with a successful career behind her and seven children of her own give so much of herself — the Volunteer Center gave her the 2010 Inspirational Achievement Award — to the less privileged among us?

“We (volunteers) are trying to give (Drexel House residents) a feeling that we’re all in this together,” she says.

“I want to make this for them not a shelter, but a home.”

George Le Masurier, publisher of The Olympian, can be reached at 360-357 0206 or glemasurier@theolympian .com.

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