By Connie Berry
BINGHAMTON — The staff at Catholic Charities of Broome County (CCBC) live out Jesus’ Gospel teachings on a daily basis. The beatitudes come alive when they help feed the hungry and clothe the poor; when they offer shelter to the homeless and friendship and compassion to those with disabilities.
Bishop Robert Cunningham has been touring Catholic Charities facilities in every region of the diocese for the past few months. The new diocesan director of the program is the former director of CCBC, Joe Slavik. The two visited the Binghamton Catholic Charities offices and sites on Oct. 27.
They were greeted warmly at the door of the main office by two residents of one of the group homes managed by CCBC. Bruce Nickerson presented the bishop with a colorful painting, which was part of a summer project organized by parents of persons with development disabilities.
“I like you,” Bruce said as the bishop accepted the painting.
“I like you, too,” the bishop said. “I’m glad you came out to see me today. I’ll take this home and put it in my office.”
“Wow!” was Bruce’s response.
A meeting with the leadership team of CCBC was the first item on the day’s agenda. It began with prayer and several plates of baked goods. The new director, Lori Accardi, presented CCBC’s fund raising video and introduced the directors of the numerous programs provided by CCBC and they spoke about their individual projects. The video is part of the organization’s capitol campaign. The money raised will enable them to renovate and expand their current main offices. The building is in need of repairs, which is evidenced in the video. Accardi stated they are at about 82 percent of their $3.3 million goal.
“It is a struggle to raise money,” Accardi said. “These are tough times for everyone. As the New York State government downsizes, more people will be turning to places like Catholic Charities.”
According to the numbers of people served — 5,000 a month through food pantries alone and thousands of others through mental health, youth, family, persons with developmental disabilities, seniors and other programs offered by CCBC, the organization already provides significant service to the community.
One social worker interviewed for the development video made a profound statement. He said, “[Throughout the day] I could serve someone who makes $100,000 a year and someone who is homeless.
…Some days I have to remember that I’m a social worker, not a miracle worker.”
Bishop Cunningham told the staff he was glad to be there and that even though the Catholic Charities programs he has seen in both the Buffalo and Ogdensburg Dioceses, and now the Syracuse Diocese, are each their own model, they all have the common goal of service.
“Catholic Charities furthers the mission of the church and brings the church’s social teachings out into the community,” he said. “I’m here to thank you in the name of the church.”
The initial meeting wasn’t long because the rest of the bishop’s time in Broome County that day was spent at the various Catholic Charities programming sites. He toured a large food pantry just six blocks down the street from the main offices. There he met Kathy Pfaffenbach, a long-time Catholic Charities staff member. She explained that the people who need food would be lined up outside the door at noon. Staff are available to help them navigate the process of getting help from some of the other available services in the community. One young woman was meeting with a staff person while she rolled her daughter’s stroller back and forth. “It’s her first birthday today,” the mother said.
“Just a minute,” the staff member said.
She went into the pantry and came back with a birthday cake with pink frosting. “Here, take this,” the staffer said.
Later, the mother borrowed an office telephone to call someone for a ride. “Yeah, I’m here at Catholic Charities,” she said. “They just gave me a birthday cake for the baby. Isn’t that awesome?”
Chuck Haupt, a retired photographer with Binghamton’s Press & Sun Bulletin, is a volunteer at the food pantry. He said he had covered stories about various CCBC programs during his years at the newspaper and wanted to give back now that he has time to.
“I love it here,” Haupt said. “It’s nice to help others but it’s sad to see so many people who need the pantry, from the elderly to young people.”
Pfaffenbach explained that the staff takes down some basic information from the clients so that they can better serve them. “We ask if they have a faith [or church they attend] and some will say, ‘No. This is my church,’” Pfaffenbach told the bishop.
The next stop for Slavik and the bishop was the Four Seasons Club on Front Street. There, people who struggle with psychiatric issues gather and support one another through a club model. They manage the facility themselves under the umbrella of CCBC. Four Seasons Club opened in 1983 and states in the club’s brochure, “A place where everyone is wanted, needed, expected and missed when they’re not here.” The site is in the same complex that houses CCBC’s mental health division.
The club offers various “units” where the members take responsibility such as a thrift store, clerical and business unit, coffee house and maintenance unit, kitchen, the evening program units and the employment unit.
Club member Nancy Flaherty led Bishop Cunningham on a tour through the site.
“This is our second family,” she told him. “If we’re absent, people miss us.”
Julie Smith is CCBC’s division director for Mental Health Services. She said Four Seasons Club provides a place where people can support one another. CCBC staff and members work together offering training so that members can go into the community with skills in place.
“We all have a purpose,” Flaherty said.
She told the bishop she was very nervous about giving him the tour. “All you need to remember,” she said, “is that they saved my life.”
After touring the Four Seasons Club, the bishop enjoyed lunch at Portfolios Cafe on Washington Street, another CCBC program. He was joined by the board of directors of CCBC and some of the leadership staff. Portfolios Cafe is open Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and also evenings and weekends for special events.
The staff consists of those challenged by mental illness who are trained in specific restaurant skills so they can eventually find a job in the community. Portfolios places 85 percent of those trained into jobs in the Binghamton area.
The restaurant opened in 1983 and boasts a bay window and a quaint decorations. The cafe also features a display of works by local artists.
Bishop Cunningham again thanked the Catholic Charities staff for giving him the opportunity to “get a feel for what the church is doing here.”
“The challenge is getting to know people and finding out what their needs are,” Bishop Cunningham said. “It’s a wonderful grace and a wonderful blessing to be here.”