ROCHESTER — As pastor of an inner-city cluster of parishes, Father Vincent Panepinto knows children in Rochester’s urban neighborhoods often face potentially dangerous situations. He didn’t fully understand the gravity of their plight, however, until he drove through the city one morning in 2005.
“I saw children waiting at bus stops with prostitutes and drug dealers nearby at 7 in the morning,” said Father Panepinto, pastor of Community of the Blessed Trinity, which comprises Corpus Christi, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel and Holy Redeemer/St. Francis Xavier parishes.
In August 2006 Father Panepinto’s congregation and other members of Interfaith Action, a local federation of churches and business alliances, formed a partnership with the Rochester Police Department. In mid-September the partners launched the Foot Patrol Initiative.
Through this one-year project, city police officers increased their foot patrols through four city neighborhoods with high crime rates. The officers not only patrol these areas, but also establish relationships and build trust with residents, which is an important part of creating safe neighborhoods, Chief David Moore said during an Oct. 11 press conference about the foot patrols.
Although they’ve only been in effect for about a month, Father Panepinto said the foot patrols have already made a difference in the streets around Our Lady of Mt. Carmel.
“There are certain spots all of us knew of where drugs were sold,” Father Panepinto said, noting that now “those are clear.”
Concern for young people was one reason Community of the Blessed Trinity became involved with Interfaith Action, Father Panepinto said. Other Catholic parishes throughout the diocese have recently been involved in a number of projects designed to make neighborhoods safer for children, establish relationships with them and provide opportunities for young people.
Father Michael Mayer, pastor of Rochester’s Church of the Annunciation and St. Andrew parishes, and Amy Dorscheid, the parishes’ youth minister, have spearheaded many such activities in recent years. Each week Annunciation hosts LIFE TEEN, which features an upbeat Mass with contemporary Christian music and many opportunities for teen participation. The Mass is followed by discussion groups and social activities.
St. Andrew, meanwhile, hosts an annual basketball camp for teens each summer, and both parishes hold free hot-dog roasts during the summer for children 18 and under. During the school year, parish staff and volunteers often walk through the neighborhoods and offer doughnuts to children waiting for the bus.
“It’s kind of just a way to say hi and let people know who we are and where we are; to let the kids know that there are people who care, people want to talk,” Dorscheid said. “We are becoming more familiar with the kids in the neighborhood, and they remember us. We’re at least becoming part of the neighborhood, instead of being just this building that nobody knows anything about and where Catholics go to pray.”
Developing relationships with the neighborhood’s young people will hopefully help the parishes find out what the children’s needs are and how the parishes can help them, Father Mayer said. The parishes also provide these positive things for children and teens so they’ll know they’re loved and valued. Children are naturally open and loving, he said, but need to be nurtured in order to stay that way.
“If they don’t continue on in an environment where they’re appreciated, they’re going to lose that openness, that shine,” he said.
Children and teens who feel loved and have strong, positive influences in their lives are also less likely to be pulled into gangs and violent lifestyles, Father Mayer added.
This year Father Mayer and Dorscheid also hope to open a drop-in center, where teens will have a safe place to go and hang out on Friday evenings.
Catholic Charities of Schuyler County also maintains a safe place for teens to gather in their free time. The Schuyler Teen Center is open after school and in the evenings Monday through Saturday and provides teens with positive youth-development opportunities while encouraging them to make positive and healthy choices, said Andrea Mattoon, director of the Catholic Charities agency’s Community-Based Abstinence Education Program. The teen center is one component of that program, which encourages teens to abstain not only from sex, but also drugs, alcohol, violence and unhealthy relationships.
At the center, teens can participate in recreational and social activities such as movie nights, or they can take advantage of such life-skills classes as sewing and cooking lessons, Mattoon said. On Friday and Saturday evenings, teen leaders run the Blue Note Cafe, which opened in August and is located inside the teen center. Teens developed a business plan for the cafe, and make the smoothies and treats sold there and run the cash registers, Mattoon said.
About 200 kids have used the Schuyler Teen Center since it opened in January, she added.
Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes also runs a successful abstinence-education program, which helps teens learn how to make responsible decisions about sex and other issues in their lives, said Anthony Barbaro, executive director of the agency.