By Eileen Connelly, OSU
Amid the challenges of COVID-19, staff, volunteers and supporters of Catholic Social Services of the Miami Valley (CSSMV) and Catholic Charities Southwestern Ohio (CCSWO) have responded to meet the increased needs of local communities.
The biggest impact on CSSMV, said Mike Lehner, Director of Marketing and Development, was on the agency’s Choice Food Pantry in Dayton. The area’s only food pantry that is open five days a week saw an increase from serving an average of 80 families a day to around 100 at the start of the pandemic. Many were first-time visitors.
Because many food pantry volunteers were in the high-risk category, some CSSMV staff members took on additional duties as needed, and young volunteers were recruited. “We’ve been very blessed to have some young alums and current students from Chaminade Julienne High School and the University of Dayton involved,” Lehner said.
With empty shelves at grocery stores and their regular supplier unable to accept orders, sourcing food for the pantry has been an issue, he added. Fortunately, the local community responded. Mari and Phillip Gallenstein, owners of Big Sky Bread in Kettering and members of St. Albert the Great Parish, provided 1,500 loaves of freshly baked bread to the pantry. In addition, St. Albert parishioners and other volunteers have helped the pantry source specific items, especially proteins, that have helped keep clients supplied. And, after athletic events were cancelled at UD, the pantry received donations of buns, chips and candy.
“It has been incredibly inspiring to see how the community, staff and volunteers have really stepped up to do whatever is needed,” Lehner said. “Everyone has really pitched in to help.”
While adapting to changing guidelines the agency has also been able to continue its other regular services throughout the pandemic. Staff continued to offer respite, senior visiting, counseling, parenting, and refugee services via phone and video chat.
The “next wave of concern” for CSSMV, Lehner explained, will be assisting families with their utility bills. “All the utility companies have stopped shut offs, but that doesn’t mean they’re stopping billing,” he said. “All of this comes in the wake of last year’s tornados. People are still recovering from that and living in homes that aren’t livable. The needs are just going to continue.”
That’s where the generosity of the faithful in the Archdiocese comes in. “It enables us to provide the type of flexibility we need as an agency to respond to changing needs,” Lehner said. “When you look at how we’ve had to switch gears to aid in long-term disaster recovery, and now with the pandemic, it’s because we have One Faith, One Hope, One Love. Our ability to respond to the pandemic is because we have the support of people in the Archdiocese.”
Tony Stieritz, CEO of CCSWO, agrees. “The contributions of the faithful are the fuel that enables us to do our work. We couldn’t do it without their generous support,” he said. “But, it’s not just about monetary contributions. We want all of the faithful to feel a connection to what we do, to feel that they’re part of the Catholic Charities family.”
Just as in Dayton, Stieritz said the agency’s pantry sites saw increased traffic, especially in rural areas from first-time visitors who had lost their jobs or been furloughed. “We’ve also seen an increase in mental health counseling needs.
For some people already dealing with anxiety issues, the pandemic magnified things for them. There has also been an increased need around employment services for refugees.”
In response, CCSWO adapted its service to continue meeting the needs of local families. The Food for All program, which used to be a walk-thru pantry, became a drive-thru. At St. Mary’s in Bethel, for example, on the morning of Friday, April 3, cars began to line up at 9:30am for the pantry that usually begins at 11:00am. The Ohio National Guard and Food for All volunteers unloaded food, assembled it into stations, then loaded it directly into cars. That day, 133 families/345 individuals were served. Twenty-seven of the families were new to the pantry.
In addition to its drive-thru pantries, the agency has also stocked food pantries and purchased PowerPacks for families of St. Clement School, in St. Bernard; St. Martin of Tours School in Cheviot; and Sardinia Elementary School in Brown County.
Su Casa Hispanic Center, another program of Catholic Charities, has also demonstrated flexibility by delivering care packages to clients identified as most in need. The care packages included items such as baby supplies, paper products and personal hygiene items. The second round of deliveries also included food from the FreeStore Foodbank and information in Spanish about Coronavirus prevention and stay-at-home activities for children.
“Our mission has always been to serve the poor, protect the vulnerable and welcome the stranger, and we do it in a way that meets immediate needs but also promotes their full human development,” Stieritz noted. “Right now, our mission is mercy and survival, and the faithful that support us, our volunteers and staff are part of that mission. We’re continuing to build God’s kingdom together through what we do here.”