Recognizing the dignity of its guests

FAIRFIELD—The Thomas Merton Center Celebrity Breakfast returned after a two-year hiatus to raise thousands of dollars to assist Bridgeport’s most vulnerable population. Over 250 people gathered at the Guest House on Sacred Heart University’s West Campus in Fairfield last Thursday morning, hearing stories of extraordinary volunteerism and testimonies from those who have benefitted from the Merton Center’s services. Keynote speaker and fitness expert Billy Blanks, Jr. shared his own account of overcoming struggles and homelessness.

To open the program, host Terry O’Connor, chair of the Board of Directors at Kolbe Cathedral High School, introduced Bill Colson, director of the Thomas Merton Center. “Bill understands the community that we serve and what it means to give a smile and a welcoming hand,” O’Connor said about the Bridgeport native. “He knows that charity is a hand up – not a hand out.” Colson, who has led the Merton Center since 2020, credits it with bringing people together to make change in what he calls a “very special” environment, serving breakfast and lunch each weekday and providing groceries for families through the Eat Smart Food Pantry.

Many of those making that change were recognized with commendations during the breakfast. The Thomas Merton Center Service Award was given to Sam and Maeve, children who collected toiletries and socks and distributed them at the center during the pandemic. Mary, a 103-year-old who regularly bakes bread for the Merton Center, and Christina, a volunteer of 34 years, received applause for their continuous service. For on-going dedication to the needs of the community, Safety Marking, Inc. was presented with the 2022 Kevin Mulcahy Award.

Following a full breakfast of omelets, fruit, coffee, and muffins, John Gutman, the executive director of New Covenant Center in Stamford, introduced keynote speaker Billy Blanks, Jr. Though now known for his fitness program “Dance It Out” and his success on “Shark Tank,” Blanks faced struggles throughout his early years and career, including homelessness for himself and his son when he could not pay his bills. While teaching a fitness class, he heard from participants that his program was changing their lives, prompting them to lose weight, feel good, refrain from self-harm, and regain their dignity, a vital aspect to success. He said this allowed him to open up to people as well, which prompted a change for himself. “What I love about the Thomas Merton Center is the dignity you give to people,” Blanks told the audience, prompting Gutman to add, “Your story is a tremendous inspiration to all.”

Though the Merton Center is currently located in Bridgeport’s “Hollow” neighborhood, plans are underway for a new Thomas Merton Family Center on State Street, tentatively scheduled to open in spring 2023. According to Michael Donoghue, executive director of Catholic Charities of Fairfield County, while continuing to serve meals and run the food pantry, it will also provide medical care and counseling, financial advice, ESL classes, and job training, among other services. Funds raised from this celebrity breakfast will assist in this expansion.

“The Merton Center does not exist without all you do so we can treat our most vulnerable neighbors with the dignity they deserve,” Donoghue told the donors. “Your support allows Catholic Charities to provide more services and help to move people to a life of self-sufficiency.”

Since 1974, the Thomas Merton Center has been one of the largest shelters in Connecticut, serving over 450,000 meals annually to neighbors in Bridgeport. According to its mission statement, the center is committed to providing a loving, safe and hope-filled community atmosphere that responds to the needs of its guests and residents and respects the dignity of each person.

By Emily Clark