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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, Aug. 1, 2014

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In Living

The sign says it all. Father Gene's HELP Center gives clothes to the poor.

In Living

Deacon Don Borkowski is the center's executive director and was a good friend of Father Gene's.

In Living

The HELP Center is down a few shoes currently. Last year, Stan's Fit for Your Feet donated 7,000 pairs of shoes.

In Living

The sorting area and office at Father Gene's HELP Center.

Father Gene's Help Center provides free shoes, clothing


Father Gene's Help Center, 5919 W. National Ave., is a non-profit, non-denominational charitable group that gives clothes to the poor.

"HELP" is listed as standing for "Happiness for the Elder, Lonely and Poor" in the center's newsletter, entitled "Helper." On other materials, "HELP" stands for Help the Elderly, Lonely and Poor. Either way, the HELP Center has impacted many lives in its 42 years.

The center's director, Don Borkowski, says that their mission is taken from Matthew 25, in which Jesus remarks that whatever one has done for the least, "you've done it for me." In other words, those in need, those who have the least among us, are Jesus' brothers and sisters, and should be treated accordingly.

Borkowski has been the center's executive director for 16 years. Like all the volunteers, Borkwoski went to the center to donate his time after he retired. People at the center appointed him to the board and made him executive director, which seems like a lot of work for a retired person.

Borkowski will just smile at the suggestion, but the center could be his "fourth life."

Borkowski, who is also deacon at St. Jude the Apostle in Wauwatosa, feels like he's already had "three lives." In his first, around 1960, Borkowski was executive assistant to the Milwaukee County executive. In his second life he was an administrator at St. Joseph Hospital and in his third Borkowski ran the SHARE program, which exchanges food to people for their community service.

Volunteers at the HELP Center are all retired persons. Their number varies, but Borkowski says they usually have between 40 and 50 volunteers. The volunteers take calls from people in need Monday, Wednesday and Friday between 10:30 a.m. and 12 p.m. Although many of the calls to the HELP Center are placed by single mothers, any person can get clothes for him / herself and up to three children.

Volunteers taking the calls list the number of people and their clothing sizes on an order form. Other volunteers are busy organizing donated clothing and other items in different staging areas. Rows upon rows of men's, women's and, especially, children's clothing are contained in the building, which used to be an auto dealership.

The clothing orders are filled on Mondays by the "packers," who Borkowski says shouldn't be confused with the "Green Bay type." People have to come within a week to pick up their orders, producing identification and the last four digits of their social security number when they do.

The HELP Center does not verify how poor the people they serve are; the ID is to ensure that people only receive a clothing order once every six months. People who place an order and don't pick it up are barred from ever placing another -- they are called two or three times first.

"We are here for the people, but can only give them whatever we have," says Borkowski.

Infant-related items, and others that are really in need but hard to come by, will occasionally be purchased by the HELP Center board.

The board, which has seven members, does not engage in any fundraising efforts, but includes an envelope in their newsletter three times a year. The money goes directly to an area bank, the address is printed on the envelopes and the bank sends copies of checks to Borkowski so he can send out acknowledgments.

The HELP Center was founded in 1969 by Father Gene Jakubek, a renowned local priest. "He was a charismatic man," says Borkowski.

Jakubek, who died January 19, 2010 in Omaha, Neb., was once chaplain for the Milwaukee Bucks and had a local television program, "The Answer is Love."

"People watched him religiously, excuse the pun," says Borkowski.

So many people came to the broadcast that Jakubek was able to organize a huge number of volunteers from this group of viewers. They would engage in charitable work in the area. Borkowski says that a segment of these volunteers broke off to form another group to entertain residents at nursing homes.

Borkowski says that one day somebody approached the volunteers who needed clothing and that was the only impetus needed for Jakubek to start the HELP Center.

"As a young man, Gene watched his father work in a shoe store. I'm not saying he gravitated to this because of that, but it's interesting nonetheless," says Borkowski.

Jakubek was transferred to Omaha in 1989, after admitting to a sexual relationship with a woman. He continued his work there, offering pastoral care and continuing his show on both the radio and cable access.

Borkowski first met Jakubek while working at St. Joseph's. On his way to work one day, Borkowski heard a radio DJ mention that Jakubek was hospitalized and that people should send cards. Borkowski went up to Jacubek's room and introduced himself. He says the room was already covered with get-well cards.

"That was the beginning of his lifetime being intertwined with mine. Well over 40 years," says Borkowski.

Borkowski would talk to his friend once a week, even after Jakubek was transferred to Omaha. Listeners to Jakubek's shows there still send donations to the HELP Center. And after Jakubek's death, Borkowski received many phone calls and letters telling him how Jakubek touched their lives in ways they'll never forget.


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