Something To Count On
Many people have heard of McAuley House and the hundreds of meals it serves to the homeless and working poor every day. But the larger McAuley Ministries offers a complete package of social services at three separate sites: from a 23-unit apartment complex for single mothers trying to get their lives on track - to a retail store in Central Falls that offers low-priced clothing, household items and a word of encouragement to struggling families.
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PROVIDENCE - Lunch won’t be served for another 15 minutes, but the line is already forming at McAuley House on Elmwood Avenue. Seemingly out of nowhere dozens of people converge - all knowing that during a day filled with uncertainty a meal at McAuley is something they can count on.
By 1 o’clock on this day volunteers and staff will have served more than 200 plates to the steady stream of `guests’ - some homeless, but many who work and need help stretching a paycheck, especially at the end of the month. While breakfast and lunch are the main draw here, the staff helps with a full array of wraparound services through its outreach center.
McAuley House, though, is only one part of the lesser-known McAuley Ministries, which also runs a thrift store in Central Falls and a two-year transitional housing/workforce development program for 23 single mothers and their children in South Providence that is seeing impressive results.
Wolfe: ``McAuley Ministries has always been a quiet ministry, hasn’t sought a lot of publicity.’’
Don Wolfe became executive director 12 years ago.
``But we want people to know we’re much broader than just the meal site. It’s really a spectrum of food, shelter, clothing and respect for the most vulnerable in the community.’’
He says the organization is named for Catherine McAuley who founded the Sisters of Mercy in Ireland in the 1830s, with some of the sisters eventually settling in Providence. This version of McAuley House has been located on Elmwood Avenue since 2004.
McAuley Village was built in 1990 with a focused mission: to help single mothers get an education, a job and ultimately find permanent housing and break the cycle of living in shelters. The building has 23 apartments of varying sizes and a daycare is located on site.
Matott: ``Many of our families have never lived in a place longer than two years. So this might be the first time in their lives that they have actually had a bed.’’
The Rev. Michele Matott is an Episcopal priest who also serves as the administrator at the Village.
Matott: ``Often our residents are moving in from broken families themselves, are moving in from domestic violence situations, are moving in from shelters, they’ve never had a sense of community.’’
The program is challenging, with specific expectations and regular status meetings to make sure the mothers are achieving certain benchmarks. Each resident is expected to contribute 30 percent of her paycheck toward rent ($50/month if she’s in school).
The mothers have to be at least 20 years old and their children 10 or under. There is a nine- to 12-month waiting list to get into the McAuley Village program.
Matott: ``We push them hard and there are times that they complain, but that’s what we seek, to develop a community where you can come and we talk about the issues and the problems you’re facing.’’
But she says McAuley Village far exceeds the national average success rate - at 93 percent - of mothers remaining in housing after completing the program - and not going back into a shelter.
Delgado: ``I am passionate about the program because if I had this opportunity I would have gone a lot further in my education. I’ve been a single mom also so I’ve been there.’’
Odette Delgado has been the resident services coordinator the past five years. She says the program is unique because all of the services are under one roof.
Hummel: ``What do you see in terms of the development of these mothers from the beginning to the end?’’
Delgado: ``Education. ‘’
Hummel: ``Do you think a lot of the young women here realize I really need to take advantage of this chance because I might not get it again?’’
Delgado: ``The ones that don’t I make them aware this is a once-in-your-lifetime opportunity and you need to take advantage of it. Because right now you don’t have to worry about the things that you’re going to have to worry about once you’re out of here.’’
Rev. Matott says that over the last five years the women leaving McAuley Village have gone on to become medical assistants, X-ray technologists, pharmacy technicians, nurses, school bus drivers, child care assistants, dental hygienists, dental assistants and accountants.
Her greatest satisfaction?
Matott: ``To watch them go from no education, no parenting skills, and no job readiness skills and to see them in permanent housing with a full-time jobs often and their children have excelled in schools.
At the north end of Broad Street in Central Falls, the Warde-robe has been a go-to place the past two decades for struggling families needing clothing and household items. The store has seen a transformation since Andres Montoya was hired three months ago as its new administrator. Being bilingual has been a big plus.
Montoya: ``We are able to provide gently-used clothes for the community for a low price, but also because we provide them a welcome smile and we are always able to try to listen.’’
Montoya came to Rhode Island from Columbia when he was 21. He was looking to combine ministry with a retail touch, after working at Banana Republic for eight years.
Montoya: ``Sometimes you don’t really need to sell, sometimes people are in need of someone to listen to their struggles.’’
Montoya has already made small, but significant, changes: separating out boys and girls clothing and putting signs throughout the store to direct customers to the inventory. He also puts a mannequin in a stylish dress out front with an `open’ sign during store hours. And he has increased the hours of operation from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
He stressed that the store could not thrive without a cadre of volunteers.
Montoya: ``The passion of my volunteers and the donations we receive. When you open the back door to receive donations you see the smile on their face.
Montoya customers often come in several times a week because new donations arrive daily. He is also mindful that while the store is a ministry it also has to be self-sustaining financially.
Montoya: ``I like to implement different styles around the building just to enhance not only the presentation but also to make people aware of everything we have.’’
Yvette Kenner came to McAuley House recently after spending 10 years as the executive director of the South Providence Neighborhood Ministries six blocks away. She said she was attracted by McAuley House’s array of services for a population often facing multiple challenges.
Kenner: ``It’s tough because people don’t know where their meal is coming from and when you’re elderly or young and on limited income, you’re saying to yourself, `what do I do, do I buy groceries this month, do I pay medication this month, do I pay my electric bill this month?’ So we’re those agencies that allow us to give them a little bit of a helping hand.‘’
Kenner is a smiling face, a calming voice and a forceful presence when necessary as hundreds of people pass through the doors of McAuley House every day, beginning with a breakfast offering of yogurt and cereal.
McAuley House has also transitioned into a healthy foods program, where every meal is carefully planned with good eating habits in mind. And for the past decade corporate partners have participated in the Lunch on Us program, committing to help with lunches for an entire month - often bringing in 40 or 50 employees over the course of the four weeks to help.
Wolfe, who will be retiring this summer, says the impact on the volunteers can be as profound as the guests who come for a meal.
Wolfe: ``Every corporate volunteer says they want to come back. Everybody has something in their heart that says they want to give to someone in need and this is a real opportunity to do that.
Hummel: ``Do you think it’s an eye-opener for some the first time?’’
Wolfe: ``It is, it was an eye-opener for me to come and work here. It’s an eye-opener for many folks to see folks who are in a different financial level, different financial stresses, to be thankful for what you have - and to the best of your ability to support those folks in need. We all need to do that.
In Providence, Jim Hummel for The Rhode Island Spotlight.