Debbie MacDonald strives to make clear that despite its title, Catholic Charities applies no religious distinction to the services it offers.
"People sometimes think we only help Catholic people. But we help everybody," said MacDonald, the first-year director of Catholic Charities of Schuyler County.
In order to be all-encompassing, she added, the agency depends on the wider community as well as its Catholic constituents: "We need a lot of support from a lot of different religions, whether they’re donations or volunteers."
Deepening those partnerships was the chief objective of Catholic Charities’ third-annual Faith Community Dinner Feb. 28 in Watkins Glen. Approximately 40 people representing several religious denominations in the county attended the event at St. Mary of the Lake’s parish center, where Catholic Charities staff answered questions and gave tours of the Schuyler Outreach Food Pantry located there.
MacDonald was pleased with the evening’s results, saying for instance that "someone approached us and they want to bring their youth group to our community kitchen and volunteer."
She noted that dozens of Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian and Episcopal churches, as well as other denominations, are spread around Schuyler County. Catholic Charities seeks to connect with them through its involvement with the Schuyler County Council of Churches and by providing bulletin/newsletter notices and personal appearances at the churches.
"We try to let them know what we offer," said MacDonald, adding that those churches also are asked what services they’d like Catholic Charities to add.
Residents’ most chronic needs are connected to food and housing: "It’s really a lot of the basics," MacDonald said, noting that 900 individuals received food from the mobile food pantries in February.
Schuyler Outreach is located at 112 Tenth St., three blocks from the Catholic Charities business office at 607 N. Franklin St. The pantry there is one of eight operated by Schuyler Outreach countywide. Catholic Charities also coordinates a monthly food truck that visits several of those sites. MacDonald said Catholic Charities frequently shares its excess supplies with other nearby food pantries and also has initiated the Community Food Project and Community Garden, both of which provide additional food for those in need.
In the area of housing, Catholic Charities provides multiple services to people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. To illustrate the difficulties faced by these folks, MacDonald said Catholic Charities helps place residents temporarily in area motels, but that space is severely limited during the warmer months when the Watkins Glen area’s tourism hits its peak, forcing people into tents.
Other valuable Schuyler Catholic Charities programs and services include prescription assistance; nutrition outreach and education; pre-screening for food stamps; an afterschool program at area middle schools; First Step Victim Services that supports victims of such crimes as domestic violence and sexual abuse; an emergency hotline for runaway and homeless youths; and court-ordered supervised visitation for noncustodial parents.
The Schuyler agency also has been busy of late with its CASH (Creating Assets, Savings and Hope) initiative, which aids people in filling out their income-tax returns. And, beginning in April, Catholic Charities is launching an RSVP program in Schuyler and Yates counties thanks to a $40,000-plus grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service. Through RSVP, volunteers ages 55 and over will help with food delivery, medical transportation, companionship, housing services and exercise classes.
MacDonald observed that Schuyler County has a large rural population that is not always easy to reach.
"We have a lot of small places, but I couldn’t begin to tell you how many people live in those places," she said, adding that the tourism population is unlikely to realize or respond to the needs of such residents. On the other hand, she said the awareness level of local businesses and residents is improving: "It’s coming around."
She added that people who aid Catholic Charities’ mission may not be aware of how deeply their efforts are appreciated, as evidenced by the thank-you note she recently got from somebody who had received potatoes from the food outreach.
"The things we take for granted — and somebody would write a card to us and thank us for potatoes? Those are the stories that have the biggest impact on me," MacDonald remarked.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Catholic Charities of Schuyler County welcomes donations of cash and food. Checks may be made out to Schuyler Outreach and mailed to 112 Tenth St., Watkins Glen, NY 14891. For more details about Catholic Charities of Schuyler County, call 607-535-2815 or visit www.cs-cc.org.