Sometimes, Sister of Mercy Nancy O’Brien said, she has nothing to offer the people who seek her assistance at Catholic Charities of Livingston County.
"Sometimes I can’t do a thing," she said. "But it helps them to be able to say it."
"It" can be anything from saying you can’t pay your telephone bill to saying you’re unable to afford a prescription medication.
Sister O’Brien directs rural outreach for CCLC, which is headquartered in Mt. Morris. Working with private and public monies, as well as material donations from organizations, businesses and individuals, she has aided hundreds of area families in obtaining such items as furniture, bedding, diapers, dishes and toiletries. She’s also assisted families and individuals to better budget their limited funds, navigate the social-services world, lower their heating bills and generally improve their lives.
"Before I help them, I try to make it so they can do it themselves in the future," Sister O’Brien said, noting, for example, that she’ll inform a client about less expensive phone plans than the ones they may currently have.
Joseph DiMino, CCLC’s executive director, called Sister O’Brien office "the cornerstone of our agency."
"All of our other 10 programs rely on Sister Nancy at some point, many on a weekly basis," he said. "Since she began her ministry in 1992, the number of people Sister Nancy serves annually has grown tenfold. In the Catholic Charities of Livingston County family, she is our ‘big sister,’ loved and respected by all."
On Oct. 22, Sister O’Brien was honored with the Father William Trott Award at CCLC’s 10th annual dinner at the Genesee River Reception Center. DiMino noted that the award is given annually to someone who exemplifies the traits of the late Father Trott, a deceased diocesan priest who served in Livingston County and was noted for his work with the poor, homeless and those with addictions.
"Since Sister Nancy has served this population here in Livingston County since 1992, her receipt of this award is truly merited," DiMino said.
Sister O’Brien said that she knew Father Trott and was grateful to receive an award in his name. She added that she has always been inspired to serve the poor because of the example of her congregation’s foundress, Catherine McAuley, who served the poor in Dublin.
"I think an awful lot of people don’t have any idea what it’s like to live in poverty," Sister O’Brien said. "They think (the poor) choose it."
Many factors drive people into poverty, she said, listing mental or physical illness; being a single parent; and being unskilled or poorly educated as some of the reasons people are poor.
"Those who can work very often have minimum-wage jobs or are working at two or three jobs," she said of her clients. She added that Livingston County lacks an extensive public-transportation system, making it difficult for people who don’t have cars to maintain a steady job.
Despite the challenges she faces daily, Sister O’Brien noted that she enjoys religious life and making a difference in people’s lives. For example, she said, she helped one client with six children and a past record of incarceration get a job. Such successes drive her to do more, she said.
"Mostly, I can keep plugging away," she said.