Catholic Charities Project Connect still linking suburbs and city

by Luke Eggleston
SUN staff writer

It has been 10 years since the inception of Project Connect by Catholic Charities of Onondaga County and the program has been a resounding success.

The project was originally conceived as an effort to engage the inner city of Syracuse with its surrounding suburbs. The hope was to connect the haves with the have nots.

“What we really wanted to do and want to do is build bridges in our community,” said Paul Welch, director of emergency services for Catholic Charities of Onondaga County. “There’s no doubt that you’ve got a suburban community that is decently well off. You’ve got pockets of poverty in the suburbs and in the rural areas but by and large all the statistics show that the county is in decent, good shape if you will. The city is not.”

Welch went on to cite statistics indicating the dire need of many in the inner city. According to Welch, who offered the caveat that his statistics were several years old, said that Syracuse’s poverty rate is 30 percent overall and there is a poverty rate of 40 percent among the city’s children. He observed that such a poverty rate is assessed at families living on less than $16,000 annually.

Through Project Connect, Catholic Charities hopes to make suburban parishes aware of the reality of those living in the inner city. He cited the example of Jesus Christ from Matthew 25 as evidence of the need for Christians to maintain a presence among the poor.

“He made very clear in the Gospel that he’s there. [Among] the poor, the sick, the hurting the frail, he’s there,” Welch said. “The way that you get through the disguise is you go and you help so  you know there’s something there. You’re not sure what it is, but you know and that’s what we want those kids to experience. That they’ll come in contact and that they will be different. That they’ll know that something different is there and that they’ll know that these poor kids in the inner city, low-income kids, are the same as they are and yet they’re trapped in this existence.”

In Project Connect, young people are employed through a partnership between Catholic Charities and parishes, with each paying 50 percent of the wages. Each young person is then deployed to one of six neighborhood centers throughout the city. Including the Brady Faith Center, the Bishop Foery Foundation, the Hawley Youth Organization, Northside Catholic Youth Organization, Vincent House or ParkSide Commons.

At the centers, the high-school aged youths work with younger children on projects designed to be both entertaining and educational. At the end of the session, the young people return to their home parishes and deliver a presentation, usually during a liturgy, In addition, the students are required to start a campaign to benefit the inner city youths. Restocking a parish’s food pantry is a typical project. Another typical project involves collecting school supplies for the children. One campaign included providing the children with bicycle helmets.

Francine Kelly, a Tully native whose home parish is St. Patrick’s Church in Otisco, said that the experience Project Connect offered was invaluable.

“It was really good. I enjoyed it,” said Kelly, who is currently a enrolled as a junior at the Florida Institute of Technology where she is training to become a commercial pilot. “The kids were awesome and everybody was great. It made me really appreciative of what I have.”

One project Kelly initiated with the kids was trips to several state parks. She said they were astonished by the natural surroundings.

“They were amazed at all the green,” she said. “They were just used to their own streets.”

After reporting back to St. Patrick’s, Kelly initiated a campaign to generate funds for the Bishop Foery Foundation located at 100 Edmund Ave. in Syracuse.

Deacon Chris Ballard became involved in Project Connect the summer following his senior year of high school. Four years earlier, he began to consider the priesthood. Deacon Ballard, a parishioner of St. Augustine’s Church in Baldwinsville who hopes to be ordained a priest of the Syracuse Diocese in June of 2010, said that the experience enabled him to practice what he hopes to one day preach.

“It was nice to be in a situation where I could be a positive role model,” said Deacon Ballard, who served at Vincent House, located at 514 Seymour St. in Syracuse. “It was in line with what I am hopefully going to do for the rest of my life.”

Although he observed that broken homes are not unique to the inner city, many of the young people he helped serve at Vincent House experienced very difficult home lives.

“Anywhere you go, there are broken homes but a lot of the kids we were serving came from very rough homes and some were very rough themselves. It was just an opportunity to get them off the street,” Deacon Ballard said.

Welch said that the young people served through Project Connect are often starved for attention and benefit greatly from friendships formed with the young people from the suburban parishes.

“That might be universally true of children but certainly in our inner city neighborhood centers, they just gravitate to these Project Connect members. They so much want their attention, their affection, that whatever the project, these inner city kids are really looking for friendships,” Welch said.

Welch warned the suburban youth against becoming too caught up in the experience.

“The Project Connect kids are going to have to learn their limits. They’ll learn that pretty quick. And that’s part of life. That there are limits that these kids will push and push and push until they reach the limit. These youth workers will learn that limits have to be set. That the attention and the fun comes within limits. It’s the way life is structured and they’ll learn that,” Welch noted.

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