Volunteers prepare dinner for the guests during their weeklong stay on the campus of Holy Family Church, Lakewood.
Volunteers prepare dinner for the guests during their weeklong stay on the campus of Holy Family Church, Lakewood.
Beyond providing the essentials of food, shelter and resources, what the staff and scores of volunteers from Interfaith Hospitality Network of Ocean County see as their top priority is creating a homelike environment for the clients they serve.

“They are at one of the lowest points in their lives,” said Patty Cash, IHNOC’s founding executive director, “so we do our best to make them feel at home while they are with us.”

For the past 25 years, IHNOC has united communities of all faith traditions in a collaborative effort to offer assistance to struggling families with children. With the help of well over 1,000 volunteers, 12 host congregations provide accommodations and meals for three to five families or no more than 14 individuals at a time, for one week, three to four times a year. Of the 12 current host congregations, four are Catholic: St. Joseph, Toms River; Our Lady of Guadalupe, Lakewood; St. Barnabas, Bayville, and Epiphany, Brick. Visitation Parish in Brick is one of nine communities that serve as a support parish, meaning it provides needed items to the host congregations.

When dealing with families, it’s important for volunteers to be themselves and “come with a heart full of love,” said Pat Rainier, a member of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish and IHNOC volunteer since 2008. Volunteers need to remember “they are welcoming families into their homes, their churches. They need to be present for them and help them along the way as they move forward.

“We do our best to reach out with compassion and acceptance, providing help, hope and a safe haven four our guests,” Rainier said. “We’re helping them on their journey to self-sufficiency.”

A major change to the way IHN had operated occurred about six years ago when St. Joseph Parish invited the agency to use one of the few parish-owned houses as the agency’s new Day Center. That is where those clients who are between jobs or are stay-at-home parents of preschool children spend their days. The center is completely furnished with cooking and laundry appliances as well as televisions and computers that the clients can use to aid in their employment searches. The house also has bedrooms for the families to use when it’s St. Joseph Parish’s turn to serve as the host site.

Both Cash and Rainier acknowledged the unwavering support that all the participating congregations give to IHNOC’s mission. A recent example was seen during the COVID-19 pandemic when families in the program were invited to shelter in place at the Day Center, which is located in a residence adjacent to the campus of St. Joseph Parish.

“This eliminated the obvious sharing of COVID with other congregations,” Rainier said, then noted that as a way for the congregations to remain connected and active during the pandemic, coordinators and host congregations delivered their meals and other products to the Day Center on a daily basis.

The outreach, especially during that time, was remarkable, Rainier said. She recalled how the “thoughtful members” of Epiphany Parish continued to remember birthdays of children in the program with special celebrations and gifts.

“One child who wanted to learn how to ride a bike was given a bike and a safety helmet,” she said, and the generous volunteers also gave the child’s mother a bike and helmet as well.

“That’s a birthday to remember, for sure,” she said.  She cited other examples such as Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish purchasing new bedding items and towels for the families. Students at Donovan Catholic in Toms River, who have long been consistent and dependable volunteers, also continued to help out during the pandemic.

“It’s been great for our parish and schools to be able to help families in need,” and to have been able to continue during the pandemic, said Father Scott Shaffer, during a recent visit to the Day Center. “It is our goal to help those in crisis. This place has been a real blessing for them.”