When Megan Peck, a refugee resettlement case manager with Catholic Family Center, brought Bhutanese refugee Sashi Rai to the Saint’s Place clothing closet in Fairport, volunteers there noted how few refugees they have served so far this year.
Just wait, warned Michele Quinn, assistant director of Saint’s Place, which is headquartered at 46 S. Main St. in Pittsford next to St. Louis Parish.
"It’ll come. Don’t worry," Quinn said.
Nearly 800 refugees a year are resettled in the Rochester area. Each household of refugees needs such items as beds, sheets, blankets, drapes, towels, pots and pans, dishes, toiletries, furniture, appliances, lamps, light bulbs, and a range clothing appropriate for Rochester’s variable weather. Children need school supplies, backpacks, diapers, clothing, shoes and toys to help them feel at home.
Although several rooms on the St. John of Rochester Church campus where the closet is located are filled floor to ceiling with items for Saint’s Place, a typical wave of about 100 refugees arriving could easily empty those rooms, Quinn noted.
Catholic Family Center is federally funded to coordinate refugee arrivals, and caseworkers such as Peck make Saint’s Place one of the first places they bring refugees. Peck called Saint’s Place "amazing."
"I don’t know how we would do what we have to do without them," she said, noting that in other cities that don’t have a ministry like Saint’s Place, case managers sometimes resort to pulling discarded items off the sides of roads just to make sure that the refugees they are resettling have the items they need to get a fresh start.
Saint’s Place, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, was honored in the spring during Catholic Family Center’s annual gala. It also has two major fundraisers coming up. One is its annual gala at 5:45 p.m. May 17 at Locust Hill Country Club. Tickets are $100 a person. Call 585-385-6860 for details. Additionally, its annual Super Sale will run July 10-13 at St. Louis Church, 60 S. Main St., Pittsford. The sale will have collectibles, jewelry, purses, artwork, linens, electronics, toys, furniture, dishes, books and more.
The sale enables the ministry to buy the new items given to refugees: mattresses, socks and underwear. Nearly all the other items given out by the ministry are donated. In fact, Saint’s Place has thrived on donations ever since it began, said Executive Director Colleen Knauf, who started the ministry out of her home.
"We’re very green here," Knauf said. "We recycle almost everything. If we can’t use it, we know the places that can."
Back 15 years ago, Knauf had helped others at St. Louis Parish to outfit the home of a refugee family. That family had all their needs met by the parish, but she learned from the family that there were many other refugees locally who weren’t as fortunate.
So Knauf weeded through her house to gather up all the excess items she had. Then she began to call on friends to find out if they had extra items. When refugees arrive and find out that they have a home already set up with the items they need, oftentimes they are moved to tears, she said.
"They are in tears because they ask why would people be so generous," Knauf said. "Why would they give us all these things?"
And why would more than 200 volunteers help out on a daily or weekly basis on behalf of the ministry?
"It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s fun, too, because there’s a lot of laughter down here," Knauf said.
Retired Monroe Community College department of engineering and physics professor Cornelius "Corky" Noonan is one of the many volunteers who helps make the place run.
Noonan started out with the Saint’s Place tutoring program, which teaches refugees language and other skills they need to get settled in the area. He said he has primarily done tutoring on the English language, but occasionally he has been able to call on his math and sciences background.
"You get a variety of people with different needs, and you just do the best you can," Noonan said.
Noonan also is one of the volunteers who helps out on the Saint’s Place delivery truck, which picks up furniture donations and brings items to refugees’ households. If families are at their homes when the truck arrives, they are often elated, said Pat Sweeney of St. John of Rochester.
"Mostly the families are pretty excited to see us," Sweeney said.
At each of the Saint’s Place facilities, volunteers work to make sure items are organized for quick distribution. Joan Keebler is one of those volunteers. She gets up early in the morning each day to bake cookies for her fellow volunteers and then she takes her place among the kitchen items at Saint’s Place. She will often "go shopping" in the items, meaning that she picks out a set of items that a family will need to have a complete kitchen, from silverware sets to pots and pans.
"When it’s a slow day, I sort Tupperware and try to find tops for everything," Keebler said.
Although the main focus is on usable items, the ministry also provides donated artificial flowers or artwork for a little bit of beauty in what might otherwise be a barren room.
"We figure every apartment should have something that looks nice," Keebler said.
Knauf said that items tend to materialize just when they are needed most.
"We have miracles happen every day," Knauf said. "If we need something, all of a sudden it appear on the back porch."
Yet she knows for all the generous responses of people in the local community, it is just a fraction of the need that exists.
"There is only 1 percent of refugees who make it out of the camps," Knauf said. "There are 14 million refugees in the world."
And that is why Knauf and the Saint’s Place crew say they work every day to help the refugees who have arrived in their community.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Saint’s Place is always seeking donations of furniture, household goods, clothing, financial support and donated storage space as well as new volunteers. Visit http://saintsplace.org or call 585-385-6860 for details.