Unsung Miracles: Catholic Charities fights poverty ‘one family at a time.’
A young man whose brother was killed on the streets of Paterson turned up days later at the Father English Community Center with a simple request. Poor and marginally employed, he needed a suit, shirt and tie to wear to his brother’s funeral. Carlos Roldan, who oversees the clothes closet, food pantry and furniture warehouse at Father English, part of Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Paterson, N.J., treated the request as he had hundreds of others. The man left with a brand new set of clothes he had picked out for himself. “That’s why we’re here,” Mr. Roldan insists, “to offer services to those most in need, and to do it in a way that treats them with dignity and respect.”
Nationally, Catholic Charities U.S.A. repeated such acts of compassion with more than 17 million clients in 2012—and has served more than a billion people since its founding in 1910 on the campus of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. As the second largest social service provider today, after the federal government, Catholic Charities goes about its work day after day with little fanfare or, for that matter, public recognition. But for many of the estimated 50 million people in this country (including 13 million children) who live below the poverty line, the organization is nothing short of an unsung miracle worker.
C.C.U.S.A. has become over the years a strong national advocate for the most vulnerable in our society, tending to their immediate needs while calling for more effective and efficient public policy for poverty relief. Pope Francis has elevated the dialogue by championing the cause of the poor globally, urging people everywhere “not to place ourselves above others, but rather lower ourselves, place ourselves at the service of the poor, make ourselves small and poor with them.”
A National Network of Support
Given the poor state of the economy in recent years, it is not surprising that much of the demand for Catholic Charities services has been has been driven by hunger. Indeed, more than nine million clients received food assistance in 2012, according to the organization’s most recent annual survey, a dramatic increase of 40 percent over the previous year. Nearly 80 percent of these individuals received some sort of food distribution from Catholic Charity-run food banks, pantries or other services, while the remainder benefited from prepared meals served through soup kitchens, congregate dining or home delivered meals.
Catholic Charities serves members of our communities in a surprising number of other ways as well. For example, nearly a million clients were on the receiving end of a wide range of health-related services in 2012. This assistance—provided without regard to religious, social or economic backgrounds—includes mental health counseling and help for people battling addictions. It also includes pregnancy-related aid, like educational programs within schools, residential housing services for pregnant women and assistance with prescription medicines.
In the field of housing, Catholic Charities U.S.A. reached out to nearly a half-million clients. Among the critical services it provides are rental and home mortgage assistance, temporary shelter, foreclosure counseling, home repairs and help finding a place to live. In addition to low-income families, recipients of these services include the physically challenged and senior citizens. Catholic Charities is further focused on improving the economic security of families by providing assistance for clothing, utilities, finances and other essential needs.
Refugees and immigrants are another segment of society that increasingly relies on the beneficence of Catholic Charities. Nearly 300,000 people were able to tap into legal services, and another 130,000 received assistance in such important areas as interpreter services, job placement, English as a Second Language instruction and employment training. As part of this growing effort, some 580 parishes or congregations—an increase of more than 100 from the prior year—sponsored or provided sponsorship assistance to refugees in 2012.
No organization has been more active—or resourceful—in its work with refugees and immigrants than Catholic Charities Fort Worth in Texas. With the goal of “eradicating poverty one family at a time,” in the words of Heather Reynolds, the president and chief executive officer, the organization created the Translation & Interpretation Network, a for-profit business that provides its services to local businesses, hospitals and the court system. From the $1.8 million the business earned in 2013, it paid a living wage to its 300 interpreters and translators, each an immigrant or refugee client of Catholic Charities Fort Worth. It has also established a for-profit fashion accessory line staffed by other immigrant and refugee women from the area who are paid fair and steady wages for the knitting they do in their homes, often while caring for young children.
To provide this vast array of assistance year after year, C.C.U.S.A. depends on a network of more than 160 local Catholic Charities agencies nationwide. In addition to employing some 70,000 people, it counts on several hundred thousand volunteers at the grass-roots level to help meet basic human needs.
A Good Neighbor in Paterson
Though it is just a small part of this tightly woven mosaic, Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Paterson, N.J., offers a telling example of one agency’s extraordinary commitment to the communities it serves. As Joseph Duffy, president of the Secretariat for Catholic Charities at the diocese, succinctly puts it: “We’re combining our faith and Catholic teaching with good works to be a neighbor to society’s most vulnerable.”
Among the beneficiaries is Mario Ruiz (who asked that his real name not be used) and his family. On the verge of becoming homeless after moving from Puerto Rico and having no job prospects, Mr. Ruiz found his way to Catholic Charities, where he was able to tap into the food pantry to feed his family of four. When New Jersey’s child welfare agency told him he would lose custody of his two children if the family did not have a place to live, Catholic Charities found the family an apartment in a nearby town, paid the security deposit and first month’s rent and arranged for a job interview. Mr. Ruiz was able to secure a full-time job.
Last year, the network of six pantries run by Catholic Charities Diocese of Paterson provided over 1.5 million meals to over 9,000 individuals each month, a third of them children. “Many of these youngsters would have gone hungry if not for Catholic Charities,” emphasizes Mr. Roldan from Father English Community Center.
Mr. Roldan’s own pantry in downtown Paterson is a model of efficiency and empathy. Instead of standing in line to collect bagged food items randomly gathered by its staff, clients are given a cart and allowed to gather canned goods and other nonperishables they most need from pantry shelves under a point system designed to ensure fair allocation among all families. At the same location, clients—many of them working poor—have access to clothing and furniture that are typically donated by members of more than 70 parishes across the diocese.
Staffing the diocese’s pantries are volunteers who are meticulous about their work. On a recent morning, a group was carefully sorting through a roomful of garments that lay in neat bundles on the floor. “Our volunteers spend their time selecting the best items for our clients,” said a beaming Mr. Roldan. “When people come here, we don’t want them to see anything that’s ripped or that smells bad.”
That scrupulousness is on display across the agency’s other community-based programs, including Straight & Narrow, the oldest and largest drug and alcohol treatment program in New Jersey. At the corner of Straight and Narrow Streets, the organization’s clean and professionally managed center in Paterson provided both residential and intensive outpatient services to over 7,000 adolescents and adults in 2013. The program even boasts a gospel choir that is booked for performances most weekends of the year.
A widely acclaimed system of care centers for those with developmental and intellectual disabilities is equally committed to improving lives on a one-by-one basis. Through its Department for Persons With Disabilities, Catholic Charities of Paterson cares for 75 adults in nine group homes and two apartment programs, including Murray House in Clifton, the oldest group home of its kind in New Jersey. Each facility provides compassionate, round-the-clock care as well as vocational training and paid work opportunities for many residents during the day.
Paterson’s diverse grass roots organization—which recently celebrated its 75th anniversary—relies heavily on government support along with grants and gifts from members of the church and the public. “Our people do an excellent job year-to-year working with the resources we have,” acknowledges Mr. Duffy, who is also the executive director of Straight & Narrow, “but with more than 800,000 people in New Jersey living in poverty, we’re constantly struggling to keep up with the demand for our services.”
No operation has felt the pressure more than Paterson’s food pantries—at least until recently. A diocesan-wide food drive this summer—cooked up by Mr. Duffy and actively supported by Bishop Arthur Serratelli on down—successfully filled pantry shelves at a time of the year when shortages and rationing are common. The overwhelming response to the drive turned into a huge logistical exercise for Carlos Roldan and his small team, however, who transported truckloads of food each day from multiple drop-off sites across three counties to the various pantries. At one point, a parish coordinator expressed her sympathies to Mr. Roldan for the punishing task he had assumed. Carlos gave a characteristic response: “That’s a problem I’m happy to take on any day of the week.”