Parish outreach programs provide needed assistance, companionship and, most importantly, listening ears to offer support and a warm sense of community. At St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Tonawanda, the outreach center co-coordinators, Rita Alviti and Karen Szafran, give back to their community as a key facet of their jobs.
For nearly 20 years, Alviti has worked at the outreach center, with Szafran joining her later, having been there about 14 years. Together, the women coordinate a food pantry and children's clothes closet, as well as hospital and nursing home visits, Eucharistic ministers who provide service to people who are homebound or ill and regular hot meals for people who would not otherwise have access to them.
"We have many volunteers here. People come and go," Szafran said of St. Francis' outreach center staff and the people they help. "They go to the food pantry and if they have children, they go to the children's clothes closet, or we give them referrals for other clothes closets in the area."
The St. Francis outreach program includes many volunteers who serve on a rotating basis, and they also collaborate with the parish's St. Vincent de Paul Society, which runs the food pantry, along with other volunteers from the parish and from the community. Normal public hours are Wednesday mornings, from 9:30 a.m. until 12 noon, and Thursday evenings from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.
The outreach center has a community dining room on site and a large food pantry stocked with canned goods such as beans, pasta, fruits and vegetables, to provide visitors hearty meals. There are freezers and refrigerators for perishable goods, including turkeys and hams for Thanksgiving and Christmas. As of January, volunteers at the center had already prepared non-perishable bags for Easter dinners.
"It's a real community effort. We have a lot of help from all of our wonderful volunteers. We have a lot of people from the community that help us who don't belong to the parish," Alviti said. "We set it up so every family has a really large, nice holiday dinner: stuffing, turkey, mashed potatoes, vegetables, Jell-O, desserts, pie and that kind of stuff. We try to do that for each holiday."
Once a month, the outreach center collaborates with the nearby Tonawanda United Methodist Church to hold community "stone soup dinners," which include small meals at the outreach center, or Tonawanda U.M., at 5:30 p.m. The next stone soup dinner will take place Wednesday, Feb. 18 at Tonawanda U.M., and the following one, which will be held March 18, will again be at St. Francis. The dinners alternate between the two churches, and people who attend are welcome to bring their own meals to share.
"If someone wants to bring a dish to pass, that's fine. If not, what we do promise (people who attend the dinners) is soup, bread and dessert," Szafran commented.
"It really is a nice supper. There are a lot of people who can't ever afford to go out to a restaurant. This way, they're served a nice meal. They're eating out, and they get to see other people and socialize," Alviti said. "That's why we have the hospitality room: a lot of people don't get to go anywhere."
The clothes closet provides clothing for infants and children, with a large room organized by size, type, season and gender for boys and girls. In addition to the clothes, there are also gently used children's shoes. Families are usually permitted to take two of each item, and Alviti said the center makes an effort to meet needs of visitors. Volunteers help people look for things and keep a list of needed items.
"We encourage donations of children's clothes. We desperately need them because kids grow out of things so fast, so it makes it hard," added Alviti. "We'll take up to children's size 16. The Knights of Columbus in Ohio donated 24 brand-new coats. When I say 'community,' it goes beyond boundaries."
The outreach center also participated in a holiday assistance program for this past Christmas season, in which the center serviced 124 local households within Tonawanda. The ministry extends into the neighboring city of North Tonawanda, but tries to focus on the area immediately around St. Francis.
"We try not to cross other pantry borders, because we feel it's easier for the people to get to a pantry in their neighborhood, but we do have evening hours, which some pantries don't offer," Szafran said. "We're open on Thursday evenings, so that becomes something many working families take advantage of."
Szafran said she believes St. Francis of Assisi Parish is continuing to grow with the help of parish staff and volunteers. She gave credit to religious education directors Michael and Sue Ann Saltarelli, who engage in faith formation and evangelization, as well as the pastor, Father Michael G. Uebler.
"Father Mike is very charismatic in that way as well," Szafran commented. "If someone's coming in for marriage or baptism, we try to get people involved right from the start."
St. Francis of Assisi School was one of the 10 schools the diocese selected to close as part of last year's diocesan revitalization. However, the parish now operates an early childhood center in the school's site. Although the center is not part of the outreach program if the coordinators find out there is someone who needs extra help, they will provide him or her with more information about the center.
While the center does many things, both coordinators said the largest part of their work is being able to listen to people and help them, which they said is "90 percent of the job."
"It's a very spiritual experience," Alviti said. "We feel privileged to be here daily, and we thank God every time we put the key in the door that we're still here, because we love it."