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ProJo: Rhode Island’s McAuley Ministries casts its net wide to help others

By Jim Hummel / The Rhode Island Spotlight

Posted: Apr 27, 2018 at 12:01 AM

Updated: Apr 27, 2018 at 12:28 PM

Lunch won’t be served for another 15 minutes, but the line is already out the door at McAuley House on Elmwood Avenue.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Lunch won’t be served for another 15 minutes, but the line is already out the door at McAuley House on Elmwood Avenue.

Seemingly out of nowhere, dozens of people converge just after 11 o’clock. Many arrive by bus, others by foot and some by car, all knowing that during a day filled with uncertainty a meal at McAuley is something they can count on.

By 1 o’clock, volunteers and staff on this Friday during Lent will have served more than 200 plates of fish, rice, coleslaw, bread and dessert 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 — from securing bus passes and prescription eyewear to housing and medication — through its outreach center.

McAuley House 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.

“McAuley Ministries has always been a quiet ministry, hasn’t sought a lot of publicity, but we want people to know we’re much broader than just the meal site,″ said executive director Don Wolfe. “It’s really a spectrum of food, shelter, clothing and respect for the most vulnerable in the community.″

McAuley’s roots stretch back to the 1830s in Dublin, Ireland, when Catherine McAuley founded the Sisters of Mercy, creating a place for homeless mothers and their children. Her goal was to educate and train the young women to do something productive. When the Irish immigration came to the United States, the Sisters of Mercy came with them, some arriving in Providence. Today, two sisters still work at McAuley, one as an outreach worker, the other as an administrative assistant.

The first McAuley House in Rhode Island opened in 1975 in South Providence, before moving to its current location in 2004; McAuley Village with 23 apartments was built in 1990, modeled after a program in Hartford. The Warde-robe, named for Sister of Mercy Frances Warde, initially opened as a store for low-cost children’s clothing on Broad Street in Central Falls in 1996. Within walking distance for many, the locals called it The Nuns’ Store as it was created by two retired Sisters of Mercy.

Every Wednesday the community room in the basement of McAuley Village is packed by 5:15 p.m., as all the mothers who are not working or in class gather for a community dinner with their children. Every week a different mother cooks for everyone. It is a time to catch up, give the kids a chance to interact and hear from speakers who periodically come in after dinner to talk about things like parenting or nutrition.

“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,″ said the Rev. Michele Matott, an Episcopal priest who serves as the administrator at the Village. “Often our residents are moving in from broken families themselves, domestic violence situation, 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 per month if she’s in school). The mothers have to be at least 20 years old and their children 10 or younger. McAuley has childcare available in the building and counselors who begin working right away toward settling families in permanent housing when they leave. There is a nine- to 12-month waiting list to get into the McAuley Village program.

“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,″ Matott said, adding that McAuley has a 93-percent success rate of mothers remaining in housing after completing the program — and not going back into a shelter. The rate in New York City, she said, is about 30 percent.

“I am passionate about the program because if I had this opportunity I would have gone a lot further in my education,″ said Odette Delgado, who has been the resident services coordinator the past five years. Delgado said what makes the program unique is that all of the services are under one roof.

“I’m a single mom too, so I’ve been there,″ she said. “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.″

Matott said 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, childcare assistants, dental hygienists, dental assistants and accountants.

“It’s wonderful 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 job often and their children have excelled in schools,″ she said.

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.

“We are able to provide gently used clothes for the community for a low price, but also we provide them a welcome smile and we always try to listen,″ said Montoya, who came to Rhode Island from Colombia when he was 21. He was looking to combine ministry with a retail touch, after working at Banana Republic for eight years.

“Sometimes you don’t really need to sell, sometimes people are in need of someone to listen to their struggles,″ he said.

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. The store is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

He stressed that the store could not thrive without a cadre of volunteers. “The passion of my volunteers and the donations we receive,″ he said. “When you open the back door to receive donations you see the smile on their faces.”

Montoya said a men’s T-shirt averages 50 cents, a pair of pants $2.25. 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.

“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,″ he said.

Yvette Kenner came to McAuley House a month ago, 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.

“It’s tough because people don’t know where their next 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 for medication this month, do I pay my electric bill this month?’” she said.

Kenner is both 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.

McAuley Ministries’ annual budget is $1.5 million, most of which the nonprofit raises by contributions from individual donors, grants, foundations and from corporate sponsors. 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 four weeks to help.

“Every corporate volunteer says they want to come back,″ said Wolfe, the executive director who will retire this summer after 12 years. “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. 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.″

The Rhode Island Spotlight is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that relies, in part, on donations. For more information, go to RhodeIslandSpotlight.org. Reach Jim Hummel at Jim@RhodeIslandSpotlight.org.

More online

For a look at the work of McAuley Ministries, visit us online at providencejournal.com/rispotlight.

Courtesy of Providence Journal 



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