FEEDING THE MASSES: Nancy Page, volunteer co-director of the Ecumenical Food Closet at the Church of the Transfiguration on Broad Street, shows Trinity Church Social Outreach Chair Sue Hinckley how clients shop for food at the pantry.
At a Diocesan Conference, Trinity Church in Pawtuxet Village was given five $20 Stop & Shop gift cards. The Bishop issued a challenge for the parish to triple it, to distribute $300 worth of food to families in need.
By the end of mass the following Sunday, Trinity had collected $650 to distribute. By the end of the week, it was up to $900. And by the time Christmas rolled around, the Episcopal church had given out more than $4,000 worth of food and money.
“We’ve had a good time trying to figure out how to give it away,” said Reverend Marsue Harris.
The grocery cards were used to benefit children and families, with $150 worth of cards going to three Warwick schools, the Bishop Hunt HELP Center, Neighbors Helping Neighbors and the House of Hope. Food baskets worth $40 each were given to 42 families. Checks for $225 were made out to both the Warwick and Cranston Animal Shelters.
But on Thursday, Harris and Social Outreach Chair Sue Hinckley got to see firsthand how their efforts were going to help the community.
“In general, what we tend to do with our social outreach is support local groups that don’t get a lot of funding,” Hinckley said. “You’ve got food, you’ve got education and you’ve got housing, so we try to rotate.”
In addition to the funds collected by parishioners, Trinity had $1,000 at their disposal. Harris had performed a funeral service, which usually requires a small fee to heat the building. Instead, the man’s daughter gave the church an unexpected $1,000 to distribute as they saw fit.
“There are so many people who need, but there are so many incredibly generous people. Someone comes to us with a need or sometimes they come to us and say, ‘I have something to give.’ That is actually more challenging sometimes,” Hinckley said.
Hinckley and her Social Outreach group got to work looking for causes to surprise with an infusion of funds just before the holidays. They didn’t have to look far.
Just down the road, the Church of the Transfiguration runs an Ecumenical Food Closet. Individuals within their coverage area can come in and do their own food shopping in a room set up like a grocery store.
“You really feel like you’re shopping and I think it helps people maintain dignity,” said Transfiguration Reverend Mary Korte, explaining that her son, Adam, also established a clothing store at the church for his Eagle Scout Project. Proceeds from the clothing store benefit the food pantry. “If you do urban ministry, you know how important that is, for people not to lose their dignity just because they’re living in substandard housing or on the street.”
At the food pantry, volunteers help clients find what they are looking for, and give them reusable grocery bags that they will bring back when using the emergency food services in the future.
“We see a lot of people who are receiving services for the first time. They don’t know where to get services and it’s very hard for them to just show up,” said volunteer co-director Nancy Page. “Our goal is to get people connected to services that are out there.”
Last November, the Ecumenical Food Closet served 225 people. This November, the number jumped to 310. On an average Tuesday, Page and her volunteer co-director Mary Beth Odell, will see 12 people come through for food. On a recent Tuesday, that number doubled in two hours.
“Everyone is very aware that there’s a need for food out there,” Page said.
The $500 Trinity gave to the Transfiguration pantry will be used to restock the shelves, and in particular for freezer items and peanut butter, which has risen in cost by 40 percent. It’s not uncommon for the two churches to work together, as both are known for collaborating with other religious and service agencies. Transfiguration has an ongoing relationship with Trinity, as well as Edgewood Congregational, St. Paul’s and Temple Torat Yisrael.
The food pantry is open on Tuesdays and Fridays from 9 to 11 a.m., and Wednesdays from 5 to 6:30 p.m.
“They all say God bless you when they walk out of here,” said volunteer Don Peck.
At South Providence Neighborhood Ministries, the assistance given is more long-term. Housed downstairs at the Calvary Baptist Church is Louie’s Place, a program of the South Providence Neighborhood Ministries that provides children with a safe place to go after school and all day during the summer. There are tutoring and homework help services, social skills training, and meals are provided.
Louie’s Place is far from daycare, however. The Youth Leadership Development program makes young people accountable for their actions, and trains them for both conflict resolution and academic excellence.
“We won’t even settle for success; we want excellence,” said Amy Thomas, youth program coordinator at Louie’s Place. “It’s really about putting the responsibility on each student.”
Kids of all ages are eligible to take advantage of Louie’s Place services, but must earn a place in the leadership program. Typically, students become leaders in sixth or seventh grade, and start to guide the progress of younger children there.
Thomas has seen plenty of success stories, but perhaps none more than Jacinto Albert Diaz, who came to the South Providence Neighborhood Ministries in the ninth grade. At that time, he specialized in challenging authority and said his ultimate goal was to turn 16 so he could legally drop out of school.
“The staff, they were trained to have expectations for us that I had never set for myself. My initial thought was to challenge them in any way possible,” Diaz said. “Here, I was trusted. I was responsible; I was valued. It was so unfamiliar to me, so I challenged it.”
He recalls many afternoons spent on the “bench,” or a time-out area used as punishment when children make bad decisions.
“I was 15 years old with 8-year-olds next me to me on the bench,” he said.
After time on the bench, though, Thomas would call Diaz into her office and they would talk, sometimes for hours. Eventually, he began to trust the staff at Louie’s Place and stopped challenging their decisions. He began to work hard at school and joined the leadership development program. By the 10th grade, Diaz was in all honors and Advanced Placement classes.
Today, he is a sophomore at Rhode Island College, where he has been given a full scholarship to study education. He is a senior counselor at Louie’s Place and is one of four founding members of ReThink It, a conflict resolution movement.
When he sits with kids on the bench, Diaz knows how hard it must have been for Thomas and the staff to deal with him. He also knows it’s possible for the current students to have a better future.
“I tell them I’ve been where they’ve been. It’s easy for me to relate to them,” he said, calling the current students, “my kids.”
Thomas feels the same way. Her daughter, Brianna, who can often be found helping at the center, says it’s not uncommon for her mother to give kids rides home or end up with a few at her dinner table.
“She’s not one of those people who can leave work at work. She’s mom to everybody,” Brianna said.
This Christmas, 2,500 gifts were distributed to needy children through South Providence Neighborhood Ministries. There are currently 56 children in the program, but there is a waiting list for enrollment. Capacity is set at 80, but with a drop in funding, this year is the first time in four years when the program wasn’t at capacity.
With an extra $500 in hand, Thomas already has two families in mind that she would like to keep in the program.
“We’ll find ways to stretch it,” she said.
For more information on the South Providence Neighborhood Ministries, visit www.spnm.org or call 461-7509. Trinity Church is located at 139 Ocean Avenue in Pawtuxet Village, on the border of Warwick and Cranston. Visit them at trinitypawtuxet.com.