By Kenneth J. Souza
FALL RIVER, Mass. — With kids of all ages returning to classrooms throughout the area this past week, it’s hard to imagine how needy families struggling to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads can afford the basic back-to-school necessities like notebooks and backpacks for their children.
That’s why members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society from Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Seekonk recently stepped up by collecting, purchasing and delivering truckloads of those very items to the Catholic Social Services offices in Fall River.
According to Nancy Lawson, program coordinator for CSS’ emergency and housing services, the much-needed school supplies would be distributed to the more than 200 homeless families currently living in motels and other scattered sites throughout the diocese.
“We currently have 208 families that we work with on a daily basis to rapidly re-house them and stabilize them in a safe, affordable unit,” Lawson told The Anchor. “Then, once the unit is identified, we work with each family for up to one year in stabilization to assist them to maintain and retain their housing.”
In recent years, CSS has found great support and success in teaming up with various St. Vincent de Paul chapters in parishes throughout the Fall River Diocese.
“When I first started with CSS, I knew about CSS and I knew about the St. Vincent de Paul Society, but the two never met and I kept asking questions,” Lawson said. “When I met with the (diocesan) president, Irene Frechette, I asked why there hadn’t been an effort to get them working together. To me, their mission is the same.”
According to Frechette, the Vincentians first became aware of the growing homeless population within the diocese when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts began contracting with local motels to provide temporary housing for them.
“When the families started coming to our food pantries, we noticed we were getting a bit overwhelmed and that was just prior to Catholic Social Services taking it over,” Frechette said. “When I heard they were taking it over, the Holy Spirit seemed to be telling me something. I immediately called Nancy because I realized they can’t be everywhere and do everything. They have scattered sites all over the diocese — but then who provides the local services? Well, it should be St. Vincent de Paul Society. We’re all in this together.”
Noting that CSS and the St. Vincent de Paul Society had already begun to collaborate on providing access to local food pantries when new families were initially placed in one of the motels, Lawson said it soon expanded into other areas such as school supplies and holiday meals.
“Our relationship started about six years ago with the scattered sites, which are units that are located in the cities we service,” Lawson said. “At that time, we didn’t have a contract with the state for motel work, however, effective October of last year, we entered into a contract with the Commonwealth to work with the motel families.”
The six motel sites within the diocese where CSS currently assists displaced families include the Dartmouth Motor Inn, the Swansea Motor Inn, the Somerset Motor Inn, the Atlantic Motor Inn in Wareham, the Knights Inn in North Attleboro, and the Attleboro Motor Inn.
“These families are living in one room in a motel,” Lawson said. “In most cases, the only thing they have to their name is a college-sized refrigerator and a microwave. They can’t really cook in the rooms. We have an office at each of these motels and our agency provides food pantry runs and there are makeshift pantries in the motels for families that come in with nothing. St. Vincent de Paul also supports us by making home visits — not only in the motels, but in some of our scattered sites as well.”
Last year Frechette said the St. Vincent de Paul Society hired buses to transport the families to a prepared Thanksgiving dinner, and they did the same at Christmas as well.
“CSS provides the case management, but somebody has to provide the supportive services — those are things that they don’t deal with — and that’s where the St. Vincent de Paul Society comes in,” Frechette said.
Having cultivated this collaborative relationship for the past six years, Lawson and Frechette said they are now seeing it spread throughout the diocese, as more and more St. Vincent de Paul groups are stepping up to assist CSS.
“We’ve gotten to a point now where St. Vincent de Paul has really started to grow in the diocese in its collaboration with Catholic Social Services,” Lawson said. “It’s been such a blessing!”
In fact, it was a chance meeting with the Vincentians at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Seekonk that led to the recent collection of school supplies.
Lawson said as soon as they mentioned the kids would soon be returning to school and would need backpacks and various other supplies, the Seekonk group was immediately on a mission.
“They were so excited because they were up to 65 (volunteer) hours at one point,” Lawson said. “People don’t realize how valuable their time is to us. These are hours that we could never do, because our staffing is so limited. We’re working with a bare-bones staff and if we didn’t have volunteers, honestly, there would be no way we could do what we do. Without them, without the caring parishioners donating, and without the Vincentians going out and shopping for all the supplies, we couldn’t do this.”
The Seekonk conference even took the time to separate and bag all of the supplies by age and/or grade.
“They put all the school supplies in baggies so that we could literally just grab a baggie and grab a backpack and give it to a family in need,” she said. “That’s the kind of service they provide.”
Other parishes have launched similar collection efforts, including St. Rita’s Parish in Marion, St. Anthony’s Parish in Mattapoisett, St. Julie Billiart Parish in North Dartmouth, St. Theresa’s Parish in South Attleboro, Sacred Heart Parish in North Attleboro, and St. Mary’s Parish in New Bedford.
“All of these parishes did a backpack and school supply drive,” Lawson said. “The St. Vincent de Paul Society at St. Julie Billiart Parish also prepares welcome baskets for families at the Dartmouth Motor Inn. They’re also on our emergency call list if we need food from their food pantry. The Fall River Deanery provides support for families at three motels — the Dartmouth Motor Inn, the Swansea Motor Inn, and the Somerset Motor Inn — because they’re kind of in the middle. They get calls from everybody for help. Sacred Heart Parish in North Attleboro and St. Theresa Parish in South Attleboro are also on our emergency call list.’”
Additionally, the collective St. Vincent de Paul district in Attleboro donated $12,000 to be used for “camperships” so some of the children could attend the Attleboro YMCA and Hockomock YMCA in North Attleboro during school vacations.
Frechette said the St. Vincent de Paul Society is now spearheading an effort to start a national program known as “Getting Ahead” here in the diocese. Based on the “Bridges Out of Poverty” concept, Frechette said it’s an educational initiative to help people better understand and address poverty.
“It’s a 16-week program and it’s an opportunity for people who are in poverty or near poverty but want to get ahead,” she said. “We help them examine their lives — not only their own lives, but to look at the community they live in. The whole concept of what we do within the St. Vincent de Paul Society has changed. Before, all we were doing was helping people stay at the bottom, and we can’t do that.”
“The construct is we’re telling people what they think they need, but we need to bring them to the table and listen and ask them what they need,” Frechette added. “Part of the process is to help people grow and learn how to journey out of poverty, because the community puts barriers up. But by pulling the community together, we can get things done.”
Lawson agreed, adding that the goal for CSS in working with these families is very similar.
“We don’t want to just hand out, we want to provide a hand up,” she said. “We want people to feel self-empowered, we want people to be accountable, and we want people to understand that the days of just give-give-give are no longer, because our resources are so limited. We have so many guidelines that we have to follow that, unfortunately, it comes down to choice. That’s where the accountability comes in, that’s where the education comes in — so the St. Vincent de Paul Society is a great partner.”
At the end of the day, Lawson said if her efforts have somehow managed to make just one life better, then it all would have been worth it.
“When we find units and those kids finally have their own bedrooms and beds — their own little space — that’s what we live for,” she said. “And when they come back to thank you — there’s nothing quite like it.”
“We give them hope,” Frechette added. “Sometimes people come to you and all you can do is listen. We try to help them prioritize what needs to be done, and at least they walk away knowing they have a place to start. Sometimes that’s all we can do.”
For more information on Catholic Social Services visit www.cssdioc.org, or call 508-674-4681.