She arrived in early November, pushing a cart loaded with all of her worldly possessions. Having been homeless and living on Rochester’s city streets since June, she searched fruitlessly for a place to stay.
“Unfortunately we were always full,” said Donna Ecker, director of Bethany House, a Catholic Worker home for women and children. “There is very rarely a bed available. The miracle of that early November day was that we had an open bed.”
So “Betty” was accepted at Bethany House, only after a guest from the night before didn’t return.
Appearing emaciated and disheveled, Betty had been eating out of garbage cans and sleeping in Dumpsters. Her hair was matted and thin, and her clothes were crusted with filth.
“All she owned was a ragged quilt, an extra sweater, a plastic bag used as a poncho and one pair of heavy socks,” Ecker said.
Betty’s story is not unusual for the guests at Bethany House. Along with providing emergency housing for women and children, the facility also operates a food cupboard, a clothing room and a drop-in center for women and children in need of assistance.
Founded in 1978 by the Sisters of Mercy, Bethany House functions as an independent agency affiliated with the Catholic Worker movement. The house, which has six beds, served 120 women and children last year. The permitted length of stay is 45 days, and during that period, residents work toward getting back on their feet.
Among the residents are those emerging from incarceration, drug-treatment programs, domestic violence, homelessness or mental illness/hospitalization. Each case is addressed appropriately. Betty, for example, was referred to an outpatient drug-treatment program.
“We are not counselors or social workers here,” stressed Ecker, an associate of the Sisters of Mercy and recipient of the 2003 Mercy Action Cunningham Award. “We make that very clear. But we do network, and point people to where they need to be. For Betty, she had no medical insurance, so we sent her to get Medicaid coverage and public assistance. She worked diligently to meet all of the requirements asked of her.”
As Betty’s participation in the drug-treatment program progressed, she became more independent. She proved to be ready for the next step, which included moving to her own apartment.
On her last night at Bethany House, Betty said, “I came here six weeks ago a broken woman. There was no light in my life, and I saw no hope for my future. Here, I was welcomed. You see, every place I’d ever been I wasn’t there because somebody wanted me. Then in my addiction, I burned all my bridges and I couldn’t get help anywhere. When I went to my room (at Bethany House), there was a sign that said ‘Welcome, Betty.’ Imagine — welcoming me. It must have been an angel that brought me to this door.”
In 2004, Bethany House operated on a budget of only $120,000, including a small allocation from the Catholic Courier/Catholic Charities Christmas Appeal. Other monies came from area churches that tithe and from donations through United Way Donor Option No. 3. With no paid staff, Bethany House uses 100 percent of all donations it receives to fund the ministry, which is run by five staff volunteers and about 40 support volunteers.
Sadly, one of the volunteer co-directors, Lois Amendola, passed away suddenly Nov. 2. She had been with Bethany House for more than 12 years.
“We are still reeling a bit,” Ecker admitted. “It’s been very hard. She was a wonderful person and such a joy. We will go on because that’s what we have to do, but it’s been very hard.”
Amendola came to Bethany House as a guest in 1992. She joined the staff one year later, and provided hundreds of women and children with love and support, Ecker said.
A written tribute to Amendola, which is on a table at Bethany House, states, “She helped so many people. She was our organizer, making us all clean up, wash up, pick up and stay on track. God saw all these talents and declared, ‘There is a corner in heaven that needs an organizer,’ and God called her home.”
A new co-director will be named at a later time. For now, staff, volunteers and guests are pulling together in mourning and in continuing this important work.
“While here, I think everyone understands the power of prayer and the power of community,” said Trudy Scahill, a staff volunteer and former guest. “That’s what impresses me the most. And I see the children who have been through so much. Often they act with such generosity toward the other children and other people’s suffering. I just believe so strongly in the works of mercy being done here, and it’s meant so much to others as well.”
To volunteer at Bethany House, call 585/454-4197.