When the collective level of need for folks seeking out Catholic Charities of Tompkins/Tioga becomes overwhelming, “I just tell my staff, ‘Let’s see what we can do one person at a time,’” said Renee Spear, executive director.
This seemingly modest goal adds up to quite a few individuals — many thousand, in fact — when measured over two decades.
Catholic Charities celebrated its 20th anniversary of helping improve lives in Tompkins and Tioga counties by holding an open house July 18. That event was followed by a Mass of Celebration at Immaculate Conception Church in Ithaca, with Bishop Salvatore R. Matano serving as presider.
“The Mass was lovely. The bishop did a wonderful job,” Spear said.
Prior to the liturgy, Bishop Matano visited the Catholic Charities headquarters located in Immaculate Conception’s former convent at 324 W. Buffalo St., where the agency has been located the past 17 years.
“He was able to go around and meet a lot of people, and I was able to give him a tour,” Spear noted. “He was very impressed and then he blessed the building.”
The facility serves as a home base for several vital services. Among them are the Samaritan Center, which offers clothing, personal-care items and emergency financial assistance while also helping families to enroll in food-stamp and health-care programs; nutrition outreach and education; the Family Empowerment initiative providing advocacy and mentoring for people in difficult family circumstances; the Justice and Peace Ministry that engages in public-policy advocacy to protect the rights of the impoverished; and the Immigration Services Program aiding immigrants in overcoming language, cultural and employment barriers as they transition to United States citizenship.
Spear said she’s grateful for the flexibility exhibited by her agency’s board of directors allowing new initiatives to be introduced as needed. Two examples in Tompkins County are A Place to Stay, a transitional housing program for homeless women begun in 2016; and the Refugee Resettlement Program that welcomed its first three families — from Afghanistan, China, and Colombia — earlier this year. Spear added that Catholic Charities of Tompkins/Tioga is currently developing a program to aid people with developmental disabilities and mental-health issues in finding employment.
Meanwhile, Spear also oversees the agency’s Tioga Outreach Center at 139 Roki Blvd. in Nichols, where it has been located since 2012. Like its Tompkins counterpart, the Tioga office offers a food pantry, clothing, personal-care items, emergency financial aid and help toward receiving food stamps. In addition, the outreach provides guidance for developing life skills and problem-solving; assistance in finding jobs; and Youth Engagement Services (YES), which strives to keep youths connected with school and community resources.
In a guest article for Immaculate Conception Parish’s July 16 bulletin, Laurie Konwinski, deputy director for Catholic Charities of Tompkins/Tioga, observed that her place of work welcomes all, regardless of religious belief or personal background. She also shared true stories of clients recently served by Catholic Charities of Tompkins/Tioga: a former prisoner who got a job but couldn’t afford work shoes; somebody who walked miles each day to work and slept on the floor of an empty apartment; a young man striving to be a loving dad despite not being raised with a strong example of fatherhood; and a young woman going through addiction treatment who needed to leave her family’s violent household.
According to Spear, Catholic Charities is able to assist those in need thanks to a high degree of community support, with area residents and organizations willingly donating money, clothing, food and volunteer time. Catholic Charities also collaborates with area human-service agencies, community coalitions and churches of various denominations.
Spear, who has been the agency’s executive director since 2012, said she knows Catholic Charities can’t solve all its clients’ problems, but her motivation is stoked by the many success stories that do occur.
“To be able to get up and come in here every day and keep pushing for better services to help even one person is something I really like to see happen — to know I can have a little bit of an effect on making somebody’s life better,” she said.