By Marissa Romero
IMPERIAL BEACH — Growing up in the Philippines, a young girl named Merlyn Baker frequently observed her mother donating food to the poor.
She could not have known it at the time, but seeds were being planted.
“The Holy Spirit was working,” said Baker, who would later be inspired to start her own charity, dedicating her weekends to it for 19 years now and counting.
Baker is the founder of St. Charles Caritas, an outreach ministry of St. Charles Catholic Parish in Imperial Beach, which provides people in need with food and essential toiletry items on a monthly basis. The ministry benefits people on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border and in the Philippines.
At age 16, Baker moved from the Philippines to Oregon, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting. She met her husband, Jim, during college, and they got married after graduating in 1982.
Following the couple’s move to the San Diego area in 1989, Baker began volunteering at St. Vincent de Paul Village, then directed by Msgr. Joseph “Father Joe” Carroll. But she wanted to reach out to people in need beyond San Diego.
Working at Sanyo at that time, Baker was commuting to their maquiladora site in Tijuana. She saw how the workers needed to take three busses to get to the factory and noticed that they were very poor. On rainy days, the workers used a shower station to rinse their boots before starting to work, as they were covered in mud.
In 2001, Baker asked her husband if they could help a charity in Tijuana. She said he was very supportive of the idea. Msgr. Dennis L. Mikulanis, who was serving as pastor of St. Charles Parish at the time, provided them with their first contact in Tijuana.
“When Merlyn and Jim first approached me about establishing a charity,” said Msgr. Mikulanis, “I thought, ‘Great! Go for it and let’s see what happens.’”
With the support of St. Charles parishioners, the Bakers wanted to expand outreach to God’s poor, he explained. “St. Charles Caritas grew out of that.”
Currently, Baker said, St. Charles Caritas provides about 20 days’ worth of food on a monthly basis to five sponsored sites run by nuns south of the U.S.-Mexican border:
— La Casa de Cuna in Tijuana, which shelters about 70 babies and children up to 6 years old;
— Beato Juan Pablo II, Casa Hogar in Tijuana, which shelters about 20 seniors age 80 and older;
— Monasterio del Inmaculado Corazon de María (Monastery of the Immaculate Heart of Mary) in Tijuana, which is home to about 30 contemplative nuns, members of the Orden del Santisimo Salvador y Santa Brigida (Order of the Most Holy Savior and St. Brigid);
— Centro de Salud Esperanza in Tijuana, where religious sisters serve as nurses for elderly hospital patients;
— Casa Hogar Santa Teresita in Ensenada, which shelters about 60 girls ages 6 to 12
Sister Brenda Nuñez, who resides at Monasterio del Inmaculado Corazon de María, said St. Charles Caritas has been a big blessing.
“It has been providential to find Merlyn Baker in our lives,” said Sister Nuñez. “The first time arriving with a truck full of groceries, some of the sisters cried in amazement.”
But St. Charles Caritas’ charitable efforts are not limited to Mexico.
“Jim’s Project Homeless Help” is an ongoing St. Charles Caritas program that was inspired by Baker’s husband, Jim, shortly before he died of cancer on Christmas Day in 2013. He asked her if she could buy food and other items for the homeless in the South Bay area, Baker recalled. She had not wanted to leave him alone, but he encouraged her to do so and even called her during her shopping trip to suggest more items for her list.
Currently, Jim’s Project Homeless Help provides 100 bags of food and toiletries on a monthly basis, said Baker. Parishioners, children and parents from surrounding schools help to bag the food and distribute it to the homeless.
St. Charles Caritas also operates a “Pastoral Charity Fund” dedicated to supporting people in critical financial need, said Baker. Among other things, the funds are used for directly paying rent, utility bills and other such expenses.
Last year, two ministries that support street children in the Philippines were incorporated. St. Charles Caritas’ “Feed the Children” and “Rosary Evangelization” programs send shipments of parishioner-donated food and toiletries along with rosaries on a monthly basis.
St. Charles Caritas has no overhead costs and its expenses are covered by volunteers, Baker said. Somehow, it always seems to find the money and supplies it needs to do its work.
“By the grace of God, everything will be there,” she said.
Msgr. Mikulanis, who is now pastor of San Rafael Parish in Rancho Bernardo, is still a firm believer in what Baker has created.
“This charity allows those involved in it to be the heart, the hands and face of Christ to those who need it most,” he said. “Like the disciples in the boat hauling in a huge catch of fish at the Lord’s direction, it takes all of us to do the work.”
Father Emilio Magaña has supported Baker’s ministry since he was assigned as pastor of St. Charles Parish in 2016.
“I was very happy to hear that we had a group like that helping the needy,” he said. “She [Baker] is one of the most positive people that I ever met. She is the right person for this ministry.”
Baker, who works full-time as an accountant, continues to spend her weekends with St. Charles Caritas activities. She has no immediate plans to step down, but wants her ministry to outlast her.
“This charity can’t die with me,” said Baker, who already has some ideas about who could succeed her.
She invites Catholics at other parishes to consider starting similar charities. There are other groups in need across the border that St. Charles Caritas cannot support at this time. Baker stands ready to offer assistance and share her expertise.
“I can guide them. I can be there to teach them how to start,” she said. “Maybe God is knocking at your heart.”
For more information about St. Charles Caritas, visit www.saintcharles.org/st-charles-caritas. Baker can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.