By Eileen Jevis
“We are honored to stand beside them in good days and bad; to let them know they are not alone.” — Mary Beth Frey, executive director of the Samaritan Center
Those who enter the Samaritan Center, the former St. John the Evangelist Church on North State Street in Syracuse, feel a sense of caring and fellowship within the walls of the majestic building. This feeling has been present since the structure was built in 1855. Its purpose has always been the same — to comfort, serve and welcome the community that gathers within its walls. The Samaritan Center is an organization that serves the hungry and those in need to promote their welfare, dignity and self-sufficiency.
In a challenging and fragile economy, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of clients who visit. Many, classified as the working poor, had never been in a position to need the services offered. Mary Beth Frey, director of the Center, broke down the population:
“We are currently serving approximately 80,000 meals annually. Approximately one-third of those who frequent the Center are what someone might expect — those staying in shelters, under bridges and bouncing from couch to couch without housing stability.”
Frey explained that another third of the clients are going through some sort of crisis. “More than ever, individuals and families in our community are struggling with no-win decisions of heat versus food, food versus diapers. Or the money they would have used to buy food goes toward fixing their car so they don’t lose their job or their home. Some may have already lost their homes. Almost 50 percent of those have been homeless in the previous year. They are a fragile population, who are easily thrown off course,” she said.
The final third of the population that frequent the Samaritan Center are having a difficult time surviving in a competitive society. They are seniors on fixed incomes, veterans with PTSD, or those with a disability. They rely on the Center to supplement their limited income.
In 2022, approximately 1,800 meals were served in February. By August, 8,600 meals were served — an overall increase of 20 percent from 2021.
Rodney grew up in Woodbridge, N.J. He said that his upbringing was similar to the TV show “Leave it to Beaver” — except for the color of his skin. His mother stayed home and took care of him and his brothers and his dad went to work.
Rodney earned a bachelor’s degree from Seton Hall University and a master’s degree in divinity from Princeton, and he was working on his Ph.D. at Rutgers, where he was also an adjunct professor. His work as an assistant pastor and an academic advisor can also be added to his resume. That was before drugs and alcohol took over his life.
His life fell apart because of addiction. For years, Rodney slept on the streets, in cars and one night was even allowed to sleep in the waiting room at a police station. In the morning, a police officer gave him a protein bar and sent him on his way. Rodney traveled from city to city, from one shelter or rehab facility to the next. He was destitute, lost his license, and borrowed money he has not yet been able to pay back. He lost the trust of his family and friends and had nowhere to turn. He then heard about the Samaritan Center. He’s been a guest there for 16 years.
“The Samaritan Center is for everybody,” said Rodney. “I’ve told Miss Mary (Frey) that when people see her, they see Jesus. He is everywhere, in everything the staff and volunteers do for their guests.” Quoting Nehemiah 8:10, “The Joy of the Lord is my strength,” Rodney said he feels joy at the Center.
We are all God’s children
Doug Kazacos has been a volunteer for eight years. Kazacos said there is great camaraderie among the staff and volunteers, but the one thing that keeps him going back each week are the guests. “Those who come to the Center for a hot meal also have some other need that is fulfilled along the way,” he said. “Some come for conversations with friends to avoid loneliness; others come for assistance in setting up a new apartment or living environment. Still others come to meet with a wide range of experts that are available to provide advice on legal, health and medical concerns as well as social and emotional issues, or other matters that they are encountering in their lives.”
At left: Executive Director Mary Beth Frey chats with staff member Michael Martini. (Sun photo | Chuck Wainwright)
Kazacos said he is continually impressed with the depth of compassion that is demonstrated by the staff and volunteers. He is also impressed with the outpouring of friendliness and appreciation the clients have for those who serve them. “The Center addresses the human needs of every individual — hunger, loneliness and providing warmth to those who are cold,” he said.
“The unique nature of the Samaritan Center is that all of the guests who come in for a meal or one of the programs are immediately embraced,” said John Ferguson, a volunteer for 29 years. “Everyone is treated the same — whether a staff member, volunteer or client. It’s a welcoming environment. Some of the guests come for fellowship. They come in and sit with someone else and can be comforted. They feel welcome and not looked down upon for the situation they are in.”
“Every time the Center helps someone, they are making Jesus smile,” said Rodney. “Men and women look at outward appearances. Jesus looks at your heart.”
“The Samaritan Center is a superhero organization that genuinely helps people navigate their lives with a full stomach and with dignity and respect,” added Kazacos. “We are all God’s children. We have to care for one another through the tough times as well as celebrate each other when times are good.”
These days, Rodney’s goals include getting his license back, gaining the trust of his family and friends and earning enough money to pay people back. He is working part time scanning documents at a local company and is very grateful that someone took a chance on him. He also credits his landlord for changing his life. “She gave me an opportunity to work cleaning apartments. She watched me each day to see if I was reliable and would show up and do the work.” When she moved out of the apartment, the landlord let Rodney move in, charging him minimal rent in exchange for maintaining the property. “She gave me a job, a phone and a place to live. She never gave up on me. She saved my life.”
More than a soup kitchen
There are multiple ways to get involved with the Samaritan Center. They are always in need of volunteers, especially for the breakfast shift. The My Place Program provides housing essentials for those moving into new apartments from unfit housing or shelters. Visit samcenter.org to learn how to put a My Place box together. The basic needs closet provides hygiene items such as soap, toilet paper and deodorant for the guests. Hosting a hygiene drive is another way to make a direct difference in someone’s life, explained Frey. During Thanksgiving, the staff is collecting men’s coats, gloves and socks. Donations can be dropped off at the Samaritan Center between 9 a.m. and noon Monday through Friday. Monetary donations are always welcome. Funds raised stay in the local community and directly impact the lives of those in need.
Thanksgiving and Christmas meals will be served from 1 to 2:30 p.m. on those holidays. Volunteers can fill out an application at https://samcenter.org/volunteer/. To donate, visit https://samcenter.org/donate/.
“There are days of heartbreaking sadness and days of triumphant joy,” said Frey. “But at the former St. John the Evangelist Church there is a palpable history of service and love where guests find moments of peace, acceptance and kindness. Strangers become family.”