Social service ministries and agencies across the Diocese of Trenton are being affected by new, and rapidly changing, federal, state and local protocols to deal with the spread of COVID-19. CNS photo/Katie Rutter
Social service ministries and agencies across the Diocese of Trenton are being affected by new, and rapidly changing, federal, state and local protocols to deal with the spread of COVID-19. CNS photo/Katie Rutter
" We are hoping and praying that this emergency situation improves in upcoming weeks. " Tom Mladenetz Executive director, Mercer County Catholic Youth Organization
"Love is inventive to infinity.”

These words of St. Vincent de Paul embody a powerful truth about the creative approach that will be needed in the coming weeks as the coronavirus crisis rolls over the country, stressed Joan Olden, president of the Diocesan Council of the St. Vincent de Paul Society.  The social service ministry serves all four counties of the Diocese through parish conferences.

“This is a person-to-person ministry,” said Olden, referring to the practice of teams making home visitations when someone calls for help. Those visits have now been suspended.

The St. Vincent de Paul Society is one of many social service ministries and agencies affected by new, and rapidly changing, federal, state and local protocols to deal with the spread of the pandemic known as COVID-19.

The impact on these agencies, which serve the most vulnerable populations, is significant. Offering a host of services, such as food pantries, after-school programs, financial assistance for rent and other emergencies, educational programs and nursing care, these agencies are a vital source of support and presence for those who are often isolated and struggling.

“In a worst-case scenario, as this crisis continues, we do expect a greater need for social services like ours in our communities,” said Marlene Laó-Collins, executive director of Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton. “We are doing short-range and long-range planning to address that anticipated need,” she said, noting that, at this time, Catholic Charities remains “fully operational at a heightened state of universal precautions.”

“We are following all CDC and state recommendations, participating in calls with experts, and constantly monitoring the situation,” Laó-Collins said. “But these really are uncertain times. For that reason, we are continually re-evaluating our response to this crisis, collaborating and coordinating with our partners on the county level and other community providers.”

New Protocols

Other Catholic social service agencies in the Diocese have had to close their doors to certain services and postpone others.

Tom Mladenetz, executive director of the Mercer County Catholic Youth Organization, shared that, as of March 16, “all CYO programs are canceled. We are re-evaluating our operational decisions on a weekly basis. This situation is changing so rapidly, we need to position ourselves to react appropriately." 

The CYO is a full-service childcare, youth development program and social service agency that provides affordable, quality educational and recreational services, pre-school, before and after-school programs and sports programs.

“Our goal at the CYO is to preserve the safety of our children, staff and families, while responding to the challenges facing our parents who must continue to work,” such as first responders and medical staff, Mladenetz said. “I am in daily contact with state and local authorities to guide our decision-making. We are hoping and praying that this emergency situation improves in upcoming weeks.”

Mary Inkrot, executive director of Mount Carmel Guild, Trenton, stressed, “We are closely following the information about the COVID-19 outbreak. As of now, we are open for business and have instituted CDC protocols and are disinfecting high-touched areas of the buildings of Mount Carmel Guild daily. Our buildings allow all to have the recommended personal space and ‘social distance.’”

Among the Guild’s services are home health nursing, a community support program and a joint food pantry with CCDOT.

Inkrot said that staff members are very concerned about the effects that new, but necessary, home health nursing procedures will have on patients who are often already isolated.

New procedures in effect cut back on proximity and contact between the provider and the client. In many cases, nurses are reaching out to their patients’ doctors’ offices to have prescriptions filled for three months. This will allow the nurses to offer medication management for longer than the usual two weeks.

Project Paul executive director Sal Cortale shared that the Keansburg agency has closed its thrift shop and client services until April 1.

Considering the services are designed to offer rental assistance in relation to evictions, security deposits and, sometimes, back rent, Kathy West, director of client services, said, “We are anticipating that the need for assistance will be greater down the road,” given the number of people who were living paycheck to paycheck and are now out of work as businesses have been directed to close.

Food Pantries a Must

With schools closing and many children and families formerly relying on school breakfast and lunch programs for nutritional support, perhaps coupled with the loss of one or both parental paychecks, agencies are working to keep food pantries open – with some changes.

The Mount Carmel Guild-Catholic Charities Diocese of Trenton joint food pantry has discontinued open choice – when clients come and choose their own groceries – and returned to offering pre-packaged bags, as waiting and selection areas are too small to allow for social distancing.

Similarly, SVDP food pantries and the Project Paul Food Pantry are staying open and providing pre-packaged bags or boxes so clients may get in and out quickly with minimal exposure to others.

West noted that Project Paul has abbreviated their procedure for distributing food, asking only that recipients show their Project Paul card and sign a sheet of paper.

For SVDP, “We ask that people call first and make an appointment for food pickup,” Olden said.

Added Mladenetz, “The CYO Bromley Center food pantry will continue to serve our clients in Hamilton, and we are directing our Trenton families to the school distribution sites for free lunch every weekday.”

While Mount Carmel Guild doesn’t need food or additional volunteers at the present time, “The potential for needing additional food is a real possibility,” Inkrot said. “We do rely upon the food drives conducted weekly and/or monthly at many parishes to supplement what we receive from the federal and state programs. With many avoiding large gatherings, fewer donations seem likely.

“As the next week unfolds, we will know more. We will reach out to the community when needed and when we can do it so that everyone’s health is protected,” she continued.  “National hunger relief organizations are working with the federal government to obtain more food, which will help us and all the local food pantries greatly.”

Expecting a Financial Hit

Social service ministries and agencies are bracing for the financial effects of the rapidly changing COVID-19 situation.

“While it is too early to project the full financial impact, there is no question that this extended emergency closing will have far-reaching financial implications for the CYO and most nonprofit agencies,” Mladenetz stressed.

For Project Paul, the impact of closing the thrift shop, which provides income to support its services, is already being felt.  In recent weeks, there has been a decline of one-third of ordinary income. “The smaller social service agencies are going to take a financial hit,” at a time when there will undoubtedly be an increase in client need, Cortale stressed.

A Painful Side Effect

Olden acknowledged that one of the SVDP's greatest concerns is the loneliness and isolation that will surely impact those who often find their only personal contact in the person they meet with for social services, or the nurse who comes to their home, or the parishioner who brings them the Eucharist. Even nursing homes are closed to visitors.

Many of these people don’t have families or close neighbors. Being homebound through age or illness and, now, through increased social distancing, they may lose the only real human contact they have, stressed Olden.

“I would like to recommend that we write letters, make cards and find a way to collect them or send them to those who need a bright spot in their day, who need to know they are not alone,” Olden said.

With so many children home from school, she suggested, creating a bright and cheerful letter or card might be a welcomed activity for them to add to their day.

In this time of crisis, Olden encouraged, “We need to be reflective, creative and prayerful.”