By DEIRDRE C. MAYS
CONWAY — It was a side of the church that is not easily or often seen but it was a fortifying experience for the busload of parishioners and volunteers who toured outreach programs in the Pee Dee June 9.
The tour was conceived by Diane Bullard, regional coordinator for Catholic Charities, to educate participants about the unique necessities of the communities in the Pee Dee deanery and to highlight the outreach programs that serve people in need.
The route covered six programs, both Catholic and ecumenically-run, that receive assistance and/or supplies from Catholic Charities, the Diocesan Development Fund, the Campaign for Human Development and Catholic Relief Services.
Bullard said that it is difficult to understand what happens with DDF and CHD programs unless they are seen firsthand and the trip was a way for people to see social ministries in action.
“There are a lot of people out there quietly making the world better,” she said. “It takes a unique person to live out in these rural areas and it’s overwhelming to see what they do. It’s a warm feeling that I am glad I can share.”
Bullard also planned the tour to inspire ideas and get people involved in their own parishes and plan how they can support efforts like these.
This was the first of three tours planned. It targeted the coastal area. The next two will be in the fall and around Christmas and will target inland areas.
The 20 participants were primarily volunteers from St. James Church, led by its pastor Father Rick La Brecque, but also from St. Michael in Garden City and Our Lady Star of the Sea in North Myrtle Beach. The tour was advertised in church bulletins.
St. James Migrant and Hispanic Outreach was the starting point. The Migrant Outreach provides assistance with food, clothing and household needs but it also offers an advocacy program that strives to serve as a voice for migrant workers and children along with educational programs and crisis pregnancy support.
The bus then loaded up and headed down S.C. Highway 378 into the tobacco fields of rural Marion County. The group met with the AME Women’s Missionary Society of Marion County at Soul Chapel in Gresham. Each member of the society stood up and talked about who she worked with and what sort of assistance she saw as necessary to keep the ministry alive. In the vast distances between farmlands and the closest cities, transportation is the greatest necessity and it is the elderly who seem to need the most assistance. As the women talked it was obvious that it fell upon their shoulders to drive people to the doctor or to buy groceries and the people they helped often didn’t have enough to pay for food and medicine. House fires were another concern in the area and clothes and household items are much in need.
The society’s churches all contributed to the ministry but it just isn’t enough. One woman told of a boy who was failing in school and she discovered it was because he lived in a lean-to and the family only had candles for light and they could not let him study at night.
Russ Hilsher and Henry Reyns, two of Catholic Charities most dedicated volunteers at St. James, agreed to add the Missionary Society to their delivery list of goods collected through the Catholic Charities center.
Both men are in their 80’s. Hilsher said he volunteers because he wants to give back to the church.
“It’s been and eye-opening experience,” he said. “Sometimes you feel like it is spitting in the ocean but you can help a little bit.”
That was one of the reasons why Linda Joy Rucker, a parishioner at St. Michael’s in Garden City, attended the tour. She said she was looking for a community project in her own community.
“I might not be able to be a beacon but I can be a Christmas Tree light and a whole bunch of those can light up a tree.”
The next stop was the Disabilities and Special Needs Thrift Shop in Lake City. The primary goal is to train and employ mentally-handicapped individuals in the store that sells clothing and household items at a minimal cost or free to victims of house fires.
The Florence County Disabilities Foundation also sponsors two other shops in Scranton and Florence, an assisted-living house for women with special needs as well as an educational pre-school for handicapped children, Special Olympics, a summer camp and technological assistance for people who have head and spinal chord injuries. In all, training and employment has been provided to over 800 people with handicaps in a city where the economy is depressed and the main street is almost deserted of businesses.
Father Henry Burke, a retired priest living in Murrell’s Inlet who helps with Spanish Masses near him, was most impressed by the disabilities thrift shop.
“It makes you see what can be done,” he said. “I came because I wanted to learn and I picked up a lot of good ideas.”
Father Burke was familiar with the next Lake City stop, the Migrant Outreach Program at St. Philip the Apostle Church run by its pastoral administrator, Deacon John Kiely. Kiely said they have 70 families involved in their Hispanic ministry and they also provide a food pantry, clothing and educational services. Kiely said that in the middle of a summer they can feed 250 to 300 people because 40 percent of the families in Lake City live beneath poverty level.
All of the outreach’s operations take place out of their tiny little parish hall. Kiely said they are always in need of supplies but most desperately storage space, and a lawnmower. The program has received assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Act but it has been maintained by parishioners. Kiely said they have a hard time getting the word out to workers in the fields and have to depend on word-of-mouth.
Another bright spot on the tour was a visit to the St. Ann Catholic Outreach Center in Kingstree where two Felician sisters have made a world of difference. Sister Susanne Dziedzic and Sister Johnna Ciezobka have turned their center into a safe haven for children to come and play or get tutoring. Progress and good behavior are rewarded with loving attention and privileges. Parents even have an incentive program where they are encouraged to volunteer at the center. The sisters have also affected their economically deprived community by being a headquarters for home-building missions. Like St. Philip’s they had need of a lawnmower but one of their greatest desires is manpower — people to volunteer a day to come help someone in the community whether with minor repairs around the house or even simpler tasks.
St. Ann’s also runs a clothing closet where $1.50 fills up a shopping bag with clothes, particularly children’s items, another need.
The sisters have worked hard to be accepted in an almost impoverished community, once anti-Catholic, and are proud of the work they have done because it is all about giving but not giving a handout.
They started off with DDF funds but increased their abilities through grants from their Felician community, Save the Children, United Way and donations.
“Everybody here knows if you need help you go to the Catholic church and that’s pretty nice to have that mark of Christ,” Sister Susanne said.
The visitors also got to meet Isaac Holmes, president of the Greeleyville Farmers Cooperative who said that, without assistance from the Campaign for Human Development, that important agricultural support would have died off.
Four years ago there were less than 10 people and through the support of the diocese, Holmes was able to breathe life into a program that helps farmers and increase membership to 50. The co-op now has plans to create a greenhouse and provide jobs and training.
The final stop of the day was another high note, the St. Cyprian Outreach Center in Georgetown run by the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. Sister Kathleen Driscoll, Sister Anne Joseph Edlen and Sister Charlene Milazzo work with the impoverished, those who are substance abusers and children with poor school achievement. They operate a clothes closet, a food pantry the “Cyp and Chat” hot meals and afterschool programs.
Their newest, ecumenical task is to create transitional housing to help get people on their feet. The former school building on the grounds will be renovated and the sisters are working with retired Episcopal and Lutheran ministers, the United Way and a drug and alcohol counselor.
The church and its outreach buildings are also used for parenting classes, truancy prevention, family programs, and other community programs such as Girl Scouts and adult education. The outreach operates on a DDF grant and donations.
As the tired, yet inspired, tour filed into the bus for the ride home, Bullard encouraged them to return to the churches they visited and attend Mass there once in a while and even visit the missions as volunteers.
“I hope you have ideas to take back to your church and to support this effort,” she said. “You see what needs to be done, what can be done and what is being done. We want to get the word out.”
People interested in offering assistance or making donations to the outreaches or Catholic Charities in the Pee Dee region can contact Diane Bullard at (843) 347-5157.