Samaritan Centers help families in need - Catholic Courier

Samaritan Centers help families in need

Ninety-six new families appeared at the door of Elmira’s Samaritan Center during the month of October alone.

“We had never seen these families before,” staff member Sharon Cummings said. “It was a big increase for us.”

According to Cummings, many of the families the center serves do have sources of income, but these funds are not enough to cover basic living needs. Working families face dwindling wages with higher utilities, rent, food and health needs. These mounting costs force them to seek help from the Samaritan Center and other area agencies.

Last year, the center served more than 40,000 clients, providing such emergency services as food, clothing, household items and prescription assistance. It has one full-time and two part-time employees, as well as the support of 75 volunteers.

“People come here from all different walks of life and situations,” Cummings said. “We just try to serve everyone the best we can.”

Services at the center have gone uninterrupted, despite the resignation last month of the center’s coordinator, Elizabeth Axelrod. Axelrod, who took over the coordinator post in April, decided to return to her native Colorado. According to officials at Catholic Charities of Chemung/Schuyler, of which the Samaritan Center is a part, the vacancy will be filled quickly. In the meantime, the focus remains on service.

“This center is the only one of its kind that serves the entire county,” said Stephen M. Hughes, director of development for Catholic Charities of Chemung/Schuyler. “Many people would be without needed assistance. We’re also finding new families who never needed assistance before and now they do. We’re trying to track that more than we have in previous years.”

That’s why the funds the Samaritan Center receives from the annual Catholic Courier/Catholic Charities Christmas Appeal are even more important this year. The center, which operates on an annual budget of $150,000, received $2,070 from the appeal last year and spent all of the money on emergency services for families.

One such emergency client, “Sally,” was forced by declining health to leave her job as a medical assistant after more than 30 years. Monthly disability and pension checks did not cover the 15 prescriptions she required, so she sought the center’s help.

“I don’t know what I would have done (without them),” she said. “Probably have a nervous breakdown.”

Bridget Steed, executive director of Catholic Charities of Chemung/Schuyler, stressed the importance of donations, grants and Christmas Appeal funding.

“The appeal fund is very important to us,” she said. “We use it for the food pantry, food-stamp enrollment, prescription assistance, emergency utilities, and the list goes on and on.”

This list is the same at the Samaritan Center in Ithaca, where co-director Ren{e-acute} Funke likewise stresses the importance of Christmas Appeal finds. The Ithaca center operates on an annual budget of $128,000 and received $1,676 from the appeal last year. The appeal funds went toward emergency operations in Ithaca.

“Living in Ithaca, we have many human-service agencies for any number of populations,” Funke said. “But there are still a large number that are not served. That is the group that we serve. We bill ourselves as the resource of last resort. If clients are unable to tap into any other resource in the community, we are the place to come to. There’s nothing else out there like us.”

The Ithaca center served about 5,000 clients last year. Among them were the homeless, working poor and immigrants.

Cecilia Montaner-Vargas, who works with Funke as co-director in Ithaca, shared one poignant success story of an immigrant family from Ecuador.

“We helped the family through our network,” Montaner-Vargas said. “The young woman fled South America for political reasons and she had three children. We helped her find health insurance and living needs. And we connected her with organizations that could also help. It was really meaningful.”

Despite the successes, Montaner-Vargas claims the job can be bittersweet.

“We really get to see what is going on out there on the streets and what it means to people when they can’t make a living wage. It feels good to help people here, but there’s also plenty of worry. I’m very happy when we serve someone, and disappointed when we can’t meet all their needs. Our job is very happy and very sad at the same time. The good outweighs the bad, and it’s critical that we remain a service in the community.”

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