CANISTEO — The humble storefront at 7 W. Main St. bears a plain-looking sign, “Steuben County Rural Ministry.” In one window, a faded sticker denotes the building’s former identity as an insurance office.
These days, the windows are lined by rows of stuffed animals, signaling a sense of warmth within. Indeed, on a recent Friday morning, volunteers cheerily helped the many folks who surfaced almost as soon as the ministry’s doors opened.
Patrons — mostly women — included individuals, families with several children and young moms with toddlers. They picked through the clothing racks and sought out such items from the food shelves as baby formula, soup, pasta, peanut butter and jelly, and canned fruits and vegetables. Volunteers then bagged the goods — and, as always, no money was exchanged because the ministry is a free service.
At the center of this activity was Sister of Mercy Susan Cain, the rural ministry’s director. She had little time to catch her breath as she fielded questions from volunteers and patrons, took phone calls, and arranged for gas vouchers so one person could get to the doctor and another could go visit a sick relative.
Fortunately, much of the hubbub included acts of community support for the ministry: a girl bringing in donated food that she had collected in her neighborhood; a man dropping off large bags of clothing; and a lady pressing a check into Sister Cain’s hand.
This aid is greatly welcomed, based on the ever-increasing needs that Sister Cain encounters. For instance, the ministry saw its number of families receiving food balloon from 698 in 2001 to 1,350 in 2002 and 1,498 last year.
“When I first came, there was very little to keep me busy. Now I would never give that a thought,” Sister Cain remarked.
In addition to food, household items and clothing, Steuben County Rural Ministry provides emergency financial assistance toward such expenses as travel, utilities and rent. Its operating hours are Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to noon and 1:30-3:30 p.m., with additional hours until 7 p.m. on Wednesdays.
The ministry has been operated by the Sisters of Mercy’s regional community in Rochester since its founding in 1980. During this time there have been only three directors: Sister Margaret Louise Snider (1980-87); Sister Mary Conleth Kennedy (1987-2000); and now Sister Cain. Her current role follows a 28-year teaching tenure at Elmira Notre Dame High School, where she said she developed an attraction to outreach ministry through coordinating many student service projects.
A similar sense of mission applies to such longtime volunteers as Susanne McMindes, who has been steadily involved with the rural ministry for more than 10 years.
“It’s just something that I believe in. I think I can make a difference,” said McMindes, who, along with Sister Cain, knows many of the outreach’s patrons on a first-name basis.
The outreach has an advisory board and is supported by Catholics as well as the Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian and Wesleyan churches in Canisteo. It is funded through private donations, grants and the Sisters of Mercy ministry fund. Another key affiliation is with Food Bank of the Southern Tier, which supplies most of the ministry’s food and also recently provided refrigeration equipment.
Sister Cain said the ministry is designed to serve residents of southwest Steuben County, in areas where social services are lacking. Referrals are also a big part of her work — for people who fall out of her geographic range, and for those who need more long-term assistance such as counseling, medical and dental care, prescriptions and food stamps. “I can’t always help everybody with their total need,” she explained.
That need can be huge based on the extensive unemployment, low wages, problem pregnancies and lack of education that Sister Cain observes in her region.
“You cry a little inside, and almost on the outside too. You don’t have the wherewithal to fix the problem,” she remarked. “You often get people who come to the area with maybe nothing but what they have on their back.”
But her frustration is frequently offset by success stories in which Steuben County Rural Ministry played a part, “when people can come back and say things are better. People are generally very grateful,” Sister Cain said.