GREECE — With 20 or so folks producing at peak efficiency, the school room at St. Charles Borromeo Church was more reminiscent of a factory than the site of a social-ministry project.
Volunteers were hustling hard on the morning of Dec. 8, filling numerous baskets with heaps of donated food. The Christmas-basket project is a special effort of St. Charles’ food-outreach program, which received a $500 Hunger Relief Grant in 2013 from diocesan Catholic Charities. Grants are partially funded by the Catholic Courier/Catholic Charities Christmas Appeal.
St. Charles has a long-standing tradition of being actively involved in hunger relief. The current ministry can be traced back to the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Brother Charles Varnak and Sister Bryan Ford worked closely with Rochester’s urban poor.
“We have gone from serving the needs of 10 families in 1995 to over 125 families in 2012,” noted Ron Pratt, a St. Charles parishioner who is longtime coordinator of the food-outreach ministry. He said that in addition to Christmas baskets, program recipients receive food allotments year-round and also are provided with such donated items as furniture, appliances, clothing and toys. St. Charles aligns with other local churches and organizations, such as Greece Ecumenical Food Shelf, in assessing community needs.
Pratt observed that St. Charles’ efforts are no longer limited to city residents; there also is substantial need in the Greece neighborhoods in and around the parish. Along those lines, whereas the bulk of Catholic Charities’ Hunger Relief Grants have traditionally gone to urban parishes, an increasing amount are slated for suburban parishes as well. For instance, Holy Name of Jesus — which borders St. Charles on the south side of Greece near the city line — was awarded a $500 grant in 2013.
“This year as I deliver packages of food and donations of basic necessities, I am taken aback by the increased numbers of families that are dependent upon us for help. The homes are deteriorating and the apartments are more run down,” Pratt remarked, noting that recipients are hampered by such issues as loss of employment, divorce, death of a loved one, lack of transportation, medical issues, teenage pregnancy and drug addiction. Other residents, meanwhile, are struggling along on fixed incomes while grocery, utility and gas prices continue to rise, he noted.
Based on these numerous challenges, Pratt acknowledged that he wonders at the start of each holiday season whether donations for the Christmas baskets will offset the requests.
“But it always seems to work out, because of the generosity of St. Charles parishioners. The parish always comes through,” Pratt said. “What is especially wonderful is how God does provide exactly whatever our needs may be.”
Pratt said he has vivid memories of people helped by St. Charles’ social-ministry dedication over the years: a Vietnamese family adjusting to its new living environment; a young woman raising two children while attending college; a family in which the husband learned just before Christmas that he was losing his job; a single mother with three young children who was diagnosed with cancer; a family that lost its Christmas trees and decorations when its house was broken into.
These are real-life tales of darkness within what Pratt calls “two sides to the holiday season — the dark and light side.” However, he said, substantial light emerges when these people get assistance in times of great need.
“The people we have helped have renewed hope that there will be a better tomorrow,” Pratt said, adding that he’s deeply moved when past recipients get in touch to say their lives have improved. Some, he added, have even come back to volunteer in the outreach ministry.
Pratt said none of this would be possible without supporters from the St. Charles community, from adult volunteers to the high-school students who make up flyers and collect food donations for Christmas baskets. All these people, he said, play a vital role “in helping the less fortunate have hope this holiday season, knowing that someone cares about them and that they aren’t alone.”
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Editor’s Note: To contribute to the Christmas Appeal, download and print the donation form to mail a donation.