Basket business is a gift to homeless residents of My Sister’s Place Lodge

Although Dianna is homeless, she’s not looking for a handout; she’s interested in giving back. That’s why working with Benevolent Baskets, a theme gift basket business in place at My Sister’s Place, Baltimore, “has been a tremendously good experience,” she said.

Dianna was handpicked with four other residents of My Sister’s Place Lodge (part of Catholic Charities), to run the business. The idea was pitched to Valerie Tarantino, director of My Sister’s Place Women’s Center, by founders Karen Lerario and Lesley Geisel.

“We had the space and the clients,” said Ms. Tarantino. “It was a good fit. These two wonderful personalities understand our population.”

Three afternoons a week, Ms. Lerario and Ms. Geisel lead the small group of homeless women and several volunteers to assemble and shrink-wrap baskets, track inventory, write promotional material, and learn and practice direct selling methods.

Yet it’s more than the work Dianna said she enjoys, “it’s the fellowship. Even though we have different ideas, they come together like pieces of a puzzle.”

The sessions begin and end with personal sharing as the women, volunteers, and leaders each express their emotional and physical feelings for the day.

The program effectively serves both organizations’ missions: My Sister’s Place being “to provide a safe, comfortable, and nurturing environment where women can increase their self-esteem and develop the skills necessary to be successful in the community” and Benevolent Baskets’ vision “to empower homeless women seeking a better way of life.”

“It is their business,” said Ms. Geisel of the clients, “from what the baskets look like, to designing the Web site.”

As with any startup company, marketing dollars are being watched carefully, and “the group is looking for ways to spread the word,” said Ms. Lerario. They are in the process of cold-calling Baltimore businesses – like the gift shop at The Baltimore Basilica – to place brochures on site, and approaching area realtors who may need gift baskets for their clients.

As incentive for operating the business, the women receive gift cards to Wal-Mart, Goodwill, and other stores.

Residents of My Sister’s Place Lodge are allowed to live in the facility for up to two years; they are required to pay one-third of their income and maintain a savings account.

The women chosen for the Benevolent Baskets program are fairly well along in recovery and have committed to furthering their self-sufficiency.

One other participant, Trayce, who crafts the baskets’ bows and designs the packaging, hopes the community will support Benevolent Baskets by placing orders, because it “truly benefits the homeless and women in transition,” she said.

Four themed gift baskets are available, priced from $30 to $60: Summer Fun, Italian Gourmet, Taste of Maryland, and Lifting Spirits. To order, visit

“This is an opportunity they wouldn’t have anywhere else,” said Ms. Tarantino. “It’s about building self-esteem, and may lead to employment elsewhere … they gain a sense of being and stability.”

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.