By Deacon Tom Picciano
Contributing writer

“One of the things in our agency that we believe in is really giving people that ‘hand up,’ not a handout,” said Robin Cotter, Executive Director of Catholic Charities of Chenango County.

It’s been 53 years since they started operating in Norwich, one of seven area offices of the diocesan organization. Together, Catholic Charities in the diocese is celebrating its centennial in 2023, culminating with a Mass and celebration in November at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Syracuse.

Cotter notes that because they serve a rural area, they operate differently than other Catholic Charities in the Syracuse Diocese.

Students from Colgate University help put together food bags for the pantry.

“That really requires us to work collaboratively with our partners in order to meet needs,” Cotter said.

Cotter said they don’t have all the same services in a rural county, so it’s important to work with regional efforts to serve the “vulnerable population.”

Cotter added that they’re always changing and adapting to meet the needs of those they serve.

Housing insecurity is one area that’s been a focus since the beginning in 1970.

“The homeless population in our county has really increased so that is a huge need for our county and we actually are working very hard to address that,” Cotter said.

They’ve received grants from HUD (the federal Department of Housing and Development). One grant helps people who are ill pay for things like security deposits.

Cotter said some people are considered homeless because they resort to “couch-surfing,  living with friends or relatives. But others live outdoors or by the river.

Chenango Catholic Charities recently received a grant for $900,000 from the New York State Office of Mental Health. It’s to serve those in Chenango and two other neighboring rural counties over the next five years.

“For what they call safe option support and critical time intervention. It’s a way of dealing with the homeless population.” Cotter added that only five grants in New York State were awarded.

She said it will allow for intensive case management to coach individuals to services that they need.

Another project will be a “tiny home community” in Norwich. It will include 10 homes to start, with individuals paying a portion of the rent. Three additional homes will also be included for transitional and short-term housing. There will be staff to support those living in the community.

Catholic Charities serves about 20,000 people in Chenango. Cotter said that’s about 20% of the county’s population.

“We see a lot of people in and out of there,” she said.

One of the major programs, “Roots and Wings,” is based in Norwich. The program is called a “unique resource” for Chenango County. In 2021, they opened a new facility to help people at Leilani’s Way. Cotter calls it “wraparound services.”

It includes the largest food pantry in the county, a thrift store and prescription assistance. They also provide help with the SNAP food program and health insurance. And disaster relief services are also available there. The facility operates Monday through Friday.

Cotter said Chenango Catholic Charities continues to update their services based on community needs.

“The Catholic Charities that you see today is not the same as the Catholic Charities that you saw, maybe even last year,” she said. “We’re always changing and we’re always adapting to the specific needs in our county. “

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