Saturday, November 19, 2011

Making a Difference with the Dear Neighbor in Hartford

In Hartford Connecticut, the Sisters of St. Joseph are tackling the problems facing some of their most vulnerable neighbors.  What impressed me the most is their commitment to a wholistic approach to social issues.  They sponsor and staff many impressive programs to meet the needs of the poor; they educate a large segment of people about the issues facing the vulnerable; engage neighbors as volunteers and advocates; and they address the systemic causes of injustice.

Srs. Theresa Fonti and Maureen Faenza are the co-directors at House of Bread
I went to visit several programs that the sisters own and/or operate.  I started at the House of Bread. For over 30 years, the Sisters have operated a soup kitchen, known for its delicious food and warm hospitality.  Through their conversations with the neighbors who came to the kitchen, the Sisters and their Board of Directors expanded the program.  Today it provides transitional and low income housing, a day shelter, a program to provide children with a warm dinner, and a thrift store.  They have education programs to help mothers gain a General Equivalency Diploma and job training in food service.  The program could not operate without all the volunteers who do everything from managing the thrift store, to serving the meals and mentoring the clients.  Many of their clients volunteer to assist the program even while they are receiving services.  Their secret to success is the relationships they form and the encouragement they provide to their clients. 
During a break at GED classes a mom comes to visit with her child and the House of Bread staff

As we drove up to the soup kitchen, the clients waved wildly and called to Sr. Theresa as she drove up.  She had personal comments to make to almost everyone we passed on the way in. 

The Soup Kitchen relies heavily on volunteers

Next I was off to Jubilee House, a community adult education center and gathering place operated as a ministry of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Chambery in Hartford.  Jubilee House’s mission is to be a place where people of varied background and experience gather to teach, learn, and share in surroundings conducive to human and spiritual growth. My tour sure gave evidence to this in action.  The program offers assistance to people from over 24 countries. The success of this program is that it provides one-to-one or one-to-two ratios between the mentors and the adult learners.  Most other ESOL classes in Hartford are offered in big classes where people often get frustrated and leave when they cannot master the material.  As I wandered through the large building there were students and tutors busily practicing English everywhere.  Even during the break-time, students and tutors stay together and chat in English as they enjoy a cup of coffee, tea and snack together.  I got a chance to talk with one of the tutors during the break who started out coming one morning a week and now comes four times a week because she feels the program is so effective and necessary.
A volunteer tutor and her student

The individualized attention makes all the difference for these adult learners

Jubilee House also has a very responsive program for refugees who have completed the post-refugee resettlement program offered by the Government or Catholic Charities.  Hartford has a large refugee population from Bosnia, Liberia, Somalia, Burma, Burundi, Iraq, and Buhtan.    Essentially, this means they are serving the people once there really is no government funding or other charity programs to assist them.  They are the only post-resettlement  program in their area. The need for services is great because most of these refugees come from vastly different lifestyles, have experience trauma, and do not speak English.  However, I am told that when the clients experience success in jobs, legal status or other major landmarks, the effusiveness of their joy is extreme.
The third major program at Jubilee House is the Esperana Academic Center, which provides writing, math, computer literacy, and world of work instruction to adults who have a high school diploma or GED and who wish to pursue higher education or build life/work skills.
As if these programs weren’t impressive enough, then I was off to visit Tabor House.  Founded in 1990 by the Sisters of St. Joseph, Tabor House consists of two Victorian homes in Hartford that provide a safe, loving home for formerly homeless people with AIDS and HIV.   
Tabor House

Sister Ann Kane, CSJ, is the executive director of the Tabor House residences. In addition to Sister Ann, there is a case manager and substance abuse counselor who works with residents on their recovery efforts through various self-help groups, helps them maintain their health as they keep appointments at local clinics for medical care and medication, scouts out job possibilities, and, when a resident is ready, helps them transition into permanent independent living situations.

I had the opportunity to talk with a few of the residents.  Having run residential programs in my past, I was quite impressed as the residents talked about the program as their home and the importance of the staff in their lives.

The last program that I learned about was the Collaborative Center for Justice.  Co-located at Jubilee House, this program impacts public policy by addressing the root causes of poverty and injustice.  It builds partnerships with others who are committed to shaping just policies and participates in initiatives that address issues of health care, environmental justice, homelessness and housing, death penalty, budget and taxes, and issues that impact women, children and families.

 A network of well-prepared volunteers contact legislators on important issues.  An innovative initiative of the group is that they assign prayer partners to Legislators who pray for their guidance as they deliberate the laws that will govern society.  Sr. Linda Pepe, CSJ, a registered lobbyist prepares the educational materials for the volunteers, provides advocacy and training programs, and engages in efforts to persuade legislators to pass laws that address the common good.  Sr. Linda reminded me that the Sisters of St. Joseph have run a soup kitchen for 31 years.  “We need to ask the question, why do we still have these,” she said.  Her efforts supported by her sisters address these systemic issues that keep people in poverty. 
Linda also talked about the success that the Collaborative Center for Justice had in a recent immigration situation.  After an immigration raid by the Federal government in which the Hartford police participated, the Brazilian immigrant community into a panic.  People were afraid to leave their house and would not call the police when there was danger.  The network of advocates worked with the City of Hartford to pass an ordinance that clarified the rights of documented and undocumented people in Hartford and the role that police did and did not play in immigration issues.  This landmark legislation has served as a model for other communities.

My time in Hartford was quite an experience.  It was impressive to see the impact they are having in their community with their dear neighbor as partners in healing the neighborhood.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Joseph in Stained Glass

While visiting in Philadelphia at the Sisters of St. Joseph motherhouse I was very interested to find that almost all the stained glass windows in the chapel include pictures of St. Joseph.  I thought you might enjoy seeing them.
The Espousal of the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph

The Visitation
The Dream of Joseph
The Birth of Christ
The Adoration of the Magi
The Presentation of the Temple
The Flight into Egypt
The Rest in the Desert
The Finding of the Child Jesus
The Hidden Life at Nazareth
The Death of St. Joseph
St. Joseph, Patron of the Universal Church

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A Unique Business Plan that Provides for the Neighbor

Last night in Connecticut I had dinner at the Flatbread Company and was very impressed by their business plan.  The owner, Eric Kronschnevil, decided that he would not spend money on advertising.  Instead he opens his business to a community non-profit agency every Tuesday for fund-raising and relies on the good will that this generates.  The amount of money that he would normally spend per week is essentially donated to the organization on a per pizza basis.  This week the fund raiser benefitted Jubilee House, a program operated by the West Hartford Sisters of St. Joseph. The restaurant was filled all evening as friends of Jubilee House, sisters and regular customers enjoyed great food.
Friends of Jubilee House enjoy a great evening

 Previously, the fund raiser has benefitted Tabor House, another program operated by the Sisters benefitting people with AIDS.  (My next blog will tell you more about Jubilee House, Tabor House and a few of the other wonderful works in which the Sisters here are involved.)
Sr. Susan Cunningham, Executive Director of Jubilee House chats with Eric and Sr. Ann Kane, Tabor House Director

While we were enjoying our organic, wood-fire cooked vegetarian pizza, Eric came over to our table and chatted a little about his unique advertising plan, his values, family and the other ways he helps non-profits.  It was obvious that he chooses the agencies that he supports with care and values what each agency does.  He tries to find ways that he can support their other fund raisers and their operations. 

When I commented how much I liked his business plan, Eric responded, “I get to share about $30,000 a year with my neighbors.”  What a Sister of St. Joseph answer!