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Diakonia: a place where people come to hit life’s ‘reset’ button

12/5/13 | By Phil Jacobs, Editor Ocean City Today

WEST OCEAN CITY—A man is playing hide and seek with a toddler.

The little boy runs behind a tree laughing with delight as his seeker pretends he can’t find him “anywhere.”

The man’s wife invites guests in to her lovely two-bedroom apartment. One could hear the collective stamps of mothers all over the world saying in unison, “you could practically eat off the floor” it was so clean. It could have been in any neighborhood, block or front yard in town.

Inside a nearby building, the pace is faster. Boxes and bags of food are emptied and shelved. Upstairs, dorm-like rooms are neat as their occupants are out either working, taking classes or perhaps getting counseling.

The day before, students from Berlin Intermediate School arrived to clean up the garden in time for winter’s cold winds.

A volunteer delivered three-dozen sandwiches she had made. She does this every week. The parking lot was busy, but in a good way. Several bicycles were at the ready in a nearby bike rack.

And all of this was happening on a quiet residential West Ocean City street.

Want for a small sign on its Old Bridge Road location, it would be easy to pass Diakonia as just another house in the neighborhood.

Diakonia, founded some 40 years ago by the Mennonite Church, is a word that describes the house or chamber used by ancient Roman church to feed the hungry and house the homeless.

Claudia Nagle, Diakonia’s executive director, has been operating this welcome home to people who generally need to push the “reset” button in their lives.

On any given night, Diakonia houses 40 people, including single adults and families. They also distribute thousands of pounds of food each year to those in need. It’s not just about the shelter and the food, however.

When a person comes to Diakonia they tap in to a resource that helps them re-discover their self-images, their courage, their flexibility and their ability to move forward towards achieving a GED, solid employment or a new home.

On Thursday, Dec. 5, beginning at 6 p.m., Seacrets will host a special Diakonia event.

“Learn how locals are helping locals in need, and how you can help as well,” said Nagle.

“We’re a family of 40, including 10 children,” said Susan Blaney, Diakonia’s Volunteer Coordinator. Blaney is Diakonia’s “Energizer Bunny.”

A former client there, she now is a huge part of the facility’s professional staff. During the tour she talks about how Diakonia came to be in 1972, how it got it’s 501(c)3 non-profit designation in 1982. She runs the tour efficiently, knowing the name of seemingly everyone she sees, and also high fiving volunteers and residents.

“If you listen you can hear my heart singing,” Nagle said.

One doesn’t have to listen with much effort. Nagle is pure joy to watch and listen to.

“We have two case managers who work with our guests,” explained Nagle. “Here, we want our residents to learn the kind of life skills they’ll need.”

Residents are offered breakfast, lunch, dinner and two snacks. Just by way of programming examples, there’s after-school tutoring on Mondays; a non-denominational Bible study on Thursdays; and Friday night is of course, movie night. If you want to practice your “warrior pose,” Diakonia also offers yoga.

Nagle explains that the only groups that can’t be accepted on a residential basis are sex offenders. There are staffers on duty 24/7. Each room generally has four beds. Men are housed in one building, women in the other.

There is a room used as transitional housing. This is where a resident has been hired with a steady income. This resident would pay a program fee to stay in the room.

Blaney said that for most, it’s about regaining a sense of dignity. Recovering addicts often have lost their driver’s licenses or even their social security cards. Here, they make their bed every day and keep their living spaces neat, sharing chores and responsibilities.

She explains that Diakonia is supported by individuals, families, schools, churches, jurisdictions and even restaurants and convenience stores, and the Casino at Ocean Downs.

“Most smiles are created by another smile,” reads a piece of paper on a fridge. That line pretty much captures what happens there.

Mostly, though, Nagle describes Diakonia as a “safety net in caring. Dignity and respect are both a big part of this.”

There’s another part to all of this, she added.

“Diakonia is home to our residents,” she said. Residents can stay for as long two years.

“We celebrate here,” Nagle added. “We celebrate when someone passes a test. Diakonia teaches people to live their lives and also how to celebrate their lives. We find joy.”

The facility really came under pressure when the housing market, be it construction or finances, hit the 2008 wall.

“There aren’t many manufacturing jobs around here,” Nagle said. “But when the economy was good, people could get construction jobs.”

She said 17 percent of the Diakonia clients are or were connected in some way with the construction business, mostly in Worcester County.

“When this happened, we saw people here we’d never thought we’d see,” she said. “People who volunteered here were now coming for our help. That has to be a humbling experience.”

On the flip side are the success stories: People who once needed services, and are now contributing to Diakonia.”

It’s difficult to describe Nagle’s job, because she does everything from write grants to host volunteers to work out food collection.

“This is a gift for me being here,” she said while taking a few minutes to talk in her busy office.

“I love it when I see the students from Berlin Intermediate School here, or someone who gives their birthday gift money to buy food for us. We’ve had bar mitzvah boys and bat mitzvah girls give their gift money to us. The area churches and synagogue have been there for us over and over again,” she said.

The future?

Nagle is hoping to see the housing expanded.

“The support of our community is amazing,” she said.

She turns away and thinks for a moment in the quiet.

“This is a job I love.”

Diakonia by the numbers:

7 full-time employees

10 part-time employees

24 service veterans enrolled in Supportive Services for Vets and Families

40 years in existence

71 percent increase in emergency food assistance

130 active volunteers

2,000 bags of groceries distributed in a month

3,000 pounds of donated diet Pepsi stacked in a storage area

6,000 meals served in a month

$1 million – budget is less than this benchmark number

To attend the fundraising event at Seacrets, on 49th Street in Ocean City, send an RSVP to

Diakonia’s Web site is  

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