Two heart attacks in less than a year sent Shawn Hall of Dansville into a tailspin. The 42- year-old had supported his family working as a diesel mechanic, but lost eight months of work due to his declining health.
Financial pressure mounted, as did the needs of his sons, Justin, 8, who has cerebral palsy, and Brandon, 4, who suffers from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Concerned about providing for his family, Hall turned to Catholic Charities of Livingston County and its Rural Outreach Program.
The program, founded in 1992, provides emergency assistance for low-income families, including necessities such as food, clothing, shelter, prescriptions or financial assistance. The annual budget for the program is $125,000, which is funded through area churches, foundations, the United Way and the annual Catholic Courier/Catholic Charities Christmas Appeal. Last year, the appeal provided $3,000 to the program, and the Hall family received $155 of those funds to maintain phone service during Shawn’s recuperation.
“Between me and my sons, we need phone service in case something happens to us medically,” Hall explained. “Having a phone gives us a sense of comfort.”
“(This program) has helped us tremendously,” he added. “They have really been there to help us all along the way. I don’t know what we would have done without them.”
His wife, Sandra, 35, agreed.
“My husband has always worked,” she said. “So when he had his first heart attack, we didn’t know what to do. We just went downhill from there. We weren’t the type of people to ask for help, but everything was getting shut off on us. We turned to the outreach program, and we have been blessed by it. It’s been hard not to just break down and cry, but we just have to focus on our blessings.”
Mercy Sister Nancy O’Brien is the director of the program, which serves about 750 clients annually. She works with one other full-time employee and more than 150 volunteers.
“It means the world to me to help people and make a difference in their lives,” Sister O’Brien said. “Many are struggling with their low-paying jobs, doing whatever they can to survive, and I can’t imagine what they must be going through. To help them in this way feels good.”
A client usually contacts Sister O’Brien, and she will assess their situation. A client will only receive emergency assistance once a year to pay a housing or utility bill. Donations of food, clothing or personal-care items may be ongoing.
“We do try to have some guidelines on how we help people,” she explained. “We are here for emergencies. We also want to empower people to help themselves and see what their other needs are. I will often help people develop a budget or direct them to other social-service agencies. It’s a measure in hopes that we can break the cycle and get them into a place where they can become more independent.”
According to Joseph DiMino, executive director of Catholic Charities of Livingston County, donations the program receives from the Christmas Appeal and other sources are critical, especially in this economic climate.
“I do see a crisis building now,” he said. “With utility costs going up for everyone and government aid being cut for various reasons, we’ve had to turn people away. In October we turned 30 people away. We are doing the best we can, but it’s tough.”
DiMino credits Sister O’Brien with the success of the outreach program. She not only provides material help, he said, but also emotional support.
“We had a family who had just bought their first home, and within six months, the husband died,” he said. “She was trying to pull her life together and figure things out. (Sister O’Brien) was able to really help her connect with community groups and social-service agencies. She’s really well-known throughout the county. It’s definitely a tribute to her hard work.”
The Hall family shares similar sentiments for the program and Sister O’Brien.
“I just can’t say enough about her and the program,” Shawn said. “She helps us with our lives, but she’s also a friend who listens. She really cares.”
“She has really been there for us in this rough patch,” Sandra added. “It’s sad for families who are in these situations with nowhere to turn. But we were definitely blessed by the program and meeting her.”