Catholic Social Services (CSS), with its emphasis on stewardship, begins the new year with its annual appeal to the Catholic community. CSS seeks to engage in the three tenets embodied in stewardship; an offering of time, talent and treasure.
Among its many programs, CSS assists couples with unanticipated pregnancies and shelters the homeless, from very young children and their moms to those whose last resort finds them among the most challenging of situations at the Brother Francis Shelter (BFS). Helping families feed their kids and cope with a disability, as well as advocating for newcomers into this country, and creating new families by providing adoption home study evaluations, is all in a days work for this benevolent organization.
If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community, engaged and informed, to assist others in living life with dignity. CSS continually seeks ways to ensure that engagement is not only with the wider community and the resources of government, but with the Catholic community in particular. The response is heartening.
According to Lisa Aquino, Director of Catholic Social Services for the last five years, the organization depends heavily on cash donations. 80% of BFS’s budget is financed from donations. This is true for the food pantry, as well, which depends equally heavily on monetary and in-kind goods.
Parishes often partner with programs, giving their members opportunities to give of their time and talents. Saint Patrick parish focused on Clare House and BFS with a “volunteer day,” where generous souls spent time cleaning and organizing facilities and engaging with the beneficiaries of their service. “Interactions with the clients is so meaningful,” Aquino said.
Saint Anthony parish, whose campus houses the Refugee and Immigration Services (RAIS) center, has welcomed refugees with food staples and meals. “All parishes do so much,” Aquino was quick to point out, citing projects parishes often take on, especially in Lent and Advent, to provide items needed for mom’s choosing to parent, such as diapers, formula, baby clothes and carriers. In-kind donations are a boon to so many programs, she added.
Bolstered by a significant grant from Amazon mogul Jeff Bezos, CSS is launching an effort to “pull together programs that do family support,” Aquino said. “We want to strengthen families through parenting workshops, incorporating other services and individuals as well,” she added.
“As an agency, we are focused on permanent stability,” Aquino said. In addition to supportive housing and income through stable jobs, CSS seeks to assist with social and emotional well-being. “People want connections. They want to know they have safe, good people to go to,” she added.
As the Bezos grant stipulates the money goes to new programs, CSS is creating what Aquino called a “diversion program.” A diversion program is one that catches families before they formally enter the homeless system and supports them into permanent housing. “This helps children to avoid literal homelessness in shelters and all the trauma associated with that,” she noted.
This multi-dimensional approach will also address behavioral issues such as addiction and mental health. It is modeled after the success of Supportive Services for Veteran Families, which has, through its efforts, reduced homelessness among veterans in Anchorage to nearly zero, according to Aquino. With grant funding from the VA, CSS provides case management services to veterans and connects them with behavioral health services.
“There is excitement. There is opportunity for new services,” Aquino said of the grant, which will help take pressure off the shelter. “Donors are keeping the shelters open and people fed,” Aquino said, and added, “we are trying to focus on donations going to people who need it. [Donors] have faith in us, that we will put it to the best use.”
Despite the breathing room that large financial boosts will give to the organization, Aquino notes that the “safety net is overflowing, but we have our ladders out.” Permanent stability will support families to keep them together. She called it an “upstream approach,” a pro-active effort to prevent folks from slipping in a downstream spiral, where there is often little more than a band-aid approach to the myriad challenges in which they find themselves.
Financial support is undeniably essential to the mission of Catholic Social Services. About a third of its budget comes through fee-based services, another one-third through grant monies (federal, state and local) and the last third through private donations. RAIS is federally supported. Relying on several revenue streams keeps the organization from being overly dependent on any one of them, Aquino said. “We don’t want to be in the situation like we had this summer,” Aquino stated, noting how threatened state budget cuts impacted Clare House and BFS.
The generosity of time and talent from the community kept Clare House fully operational as it prepared to cut back its day services to its clients drastically. “For four days, it was closed during the day and volunteers came forward,” Aquino said. Such sacrifices enabled not just essential services, but an opportunity for volunteers and clients to connect.
If the sharing of treasure is the lifeblood of Catholic Social Services, time and talent is its heart. Aquino noted prayer, kindness, and reaching out to our brothers and sisters as essential to its mission.
A Girl Scout troop formed at Clare House helps provide babysitting to the younger kids there. Volunteer shoppers help folks at St Francis food pantry to make healthy choices for themselves and their families. The sharing of art and music with the patrons of Brother Francis shelter lifts the spirits of both those who give and those who receive. “Foot washing at BFS appeals to our faith, to our core values. It reminds us of how Christ served,” Aquino said, and added, “We seek to serve and employ all people, all faiths.”
Such interactions assure folks, “Someone cares about you,” Aquino said. There is something about knowing others in the community know about you, see you, talk to you that keeps people connected and making progress toward a better life.
The benefits of community engagement in the lives of the folks served by CSS are expansive. Molly Cornish, Community Engagement Manager for CSS, is ready to assist parishes and individuals seeking to help the organization.
CSS is in need of a diverse volunteer pool to assist in such tasks as data entry for many of its programs and helping to create a database for St. Francis food pantry. Folks can assist in physical tasks such as cleaning and organizing, lifting boxes. For every desire to serve, even in small ways, there is someone with a need to be fulfilled.
As Catholic Social Services looks with hope to a future full of opportunities for the organization and its clients and supporters, Aquino reflects on her work there. “I love my job. I am so honored to have this job, to work hard every day to do the best I can,” she said. CSS strives to assist its clients with evidence-based best practices while ensuring the highest level of service. While attempting to keep a balance in her own family life, she encourages her family members to be part of the community, to want to fuel the kind of life she desires for all whom CSS serves.
“Every day, I am touched by people I see, how they struggle, but how they help each other,” Aquino concluded.