Building Bridges

Sept. 4-10, 2003
Building Bridges
By Eileen Jevis/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Project Connect brings youth together helping them find common ground

Project Connect is a joint project of Syracuse Catholic Charities and the Diocesan Youth Ministry that couples Catholic youth with inner-city children to enhance the lives of both groups. The purpose of the project is to provide youths from area parishes the opportunity to put their faith into action through service — specifically connecting them to inner-city youth. When Catholic Charities went through a strategic planning process eight years ago, they identified their mission and goals for the future. Their first goal was to strengthen their relationship with the Catholic communities and churches in the diocese. Catholic Charities’ mission was to minister to the poor, hurting and vulnerable people in the community. “The urban Catholics are increasingly poor, while the suburban Catholic parishes are flourishing,” said Paul Welch, director of Basic Needs for Catholic Charities. “We would like to develop a bridge from the city to the suburbs.”

In 1999, the Project Connect Program was born. The program includes recreational, social, educational and religious activities, including field trips, carnivals, and talent shows. When the program is over, team members will go back and tell their parishes what they experienced over the summer. They will then rally parishioners and ask for their participation in meeting the needs of inner city families. Annie Ferrara, a parishioner at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church, has found the experience enlightening. “I never knew how different the inner city was from my own world,” she said. Annie is working at Near Eastside Adventures (NEA) in Syracuse. NEA offers preschool programs, after school and summer programs for five to 12 year olds and teen programs. “Even asking for one dollar so that the kids can go on a field trip is a struggle for some families. Some of the kids have to collect and return bottles to come up with the money,” said Annie. Rick Kline, a supervisor at NEA, stresses how important the field trips are to the children. “They are the most important part of the summer program,” he said. We’ve taken the children to the Museum of Science and Technology, the Erie Canal and the library. It’s important to take them places where they normally wouldn’t go,” said Kline.

Economic differences are not the only things the youths from Project Connect have witnessed. Annie also saw how much the children were in need of attention. “Their faces light up with smiles when you talk to them and give them attention,” said Annie. Lauren Kras, a parishioner at St. Leo’s Parish in Tully, agreed. Lauren is working at the Brighton Family Center in Syracuse. The Brighton Family Center is a neighborhood center that provides a variety of services to a predominately African-American population. Lauren said she had no preconceived ideas of what to expect when she arrived at her assignment but was struck by the children’s need for attention. “They want someone to talk to and play with,” said Lauren. I tried to give all the kids equal attention. As they got to know me better, they would return to me for attention,” she said.

Bridget Shandorf, a parishioner at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Syracuse, admitted when she signed up for the project she had the idea that all inner-city children were “bad.” She soon changed her mind, however. “They just need a chance,” she said. “I was impressed with the fact that even though they all spoke different languages, they were all still able to come together and play soccer. There’s a commonality there that’s found in all children,” Bridget said. The summer programs run by Catholic Charities provide breakfast and lunch for the children — many of whom will not get another meal that day. Erin Welch, a parishioner at Holy Family Church in Fairmount, is working at Vincent House, which serves the Hispanic population in a low-income neighborhood. Erin related one of her experiences just two weeks into the program. “Some kids came up to me and told me they had no food at home. They asked if there were any leftovers from lunch. I checked with my supervisor who said that there was no food left.” It was difficult for Erin to turn the children away.

While participation in this project was important for the Project Connect youth, it was more important to carry the message back to their parishes. The teens admit that their impression of inner city life was an abstract one. Now, after working with the children throughout the summer, they are more in tune with another side of life. Annie plans on getting some of her fellow parishioners involved by bringing them to an after- school program at NEA. Erin wants to bring some members of Holy Family Church to the carnival scheduled at Vincent House. “I’d like to make the Holy Family parishioners aware of what we’ve done over the summer,” she said, “and that the need is an ongoing one.” Welch said that putting young people in leadership roles helps them communicate with parishioners in their home church. “It’s about connecting those who have with those who have not,” he said.

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