Making The Point • Representatives of various social outreach agencies from Monmouth County gathered for a meeting where they had an opportunity to network and share strategies. The meeting was hosted by Daughter of Charity Sister Joanne Dress, diocesan executive director of Catholic Social Services. Ken Falls photo

Making The Point • Representatives of various social outreach agencies from Monmouth County gathered for a meeting where they had an opportunity to network and share strategies. The meeting was hosted by Daughter of Charity Sister Joanne Dress, diocesan executive director of Catholic Social Services. Ken Falls photo

By Lois Rogers | Correspondent

The wide range of social ministry programs offered individually by the 107 parishes of the Trenton Diocese runs the gamut from emergency financial assistance to food and housing support, to disaster management services and knitting and quilting ministries.

But the overall scope of what is offered often flies under the radar.

In the Trenton Diocese, a series of five Parish Social Ministry Outreach meetings over the past year, which brought volunteers together on a county-by-county basis, has dramatically increased the sight lines, not only on what programs are already available but on what other services may be needed.

The gatherings are one more step in a process Daughter of Charity Sister Joanne Dress, executive director of Catholic Social Services, began back in 2011 when she first arrived in the Trenton Diocese to become familiar with all of the various organizations of social service, how they fulfill the mission of the diocese and what they provide to those in need.

The goal of this ongoing process, Sister Joanne said, is to foster communication and collaboration, seek ways to meet ever expanding needs and to employ creativity as “we find ways for people to volunteer. … It’s all about gathering people and hearing their insights, hearing what they have to say.”

Opening the Door

Like someone opened the door of a new house and invited everyone to stay.

That was how Liz Upperman, president of the St. Vincent de Paul Conference in Mother of Mercy Parish, Asbury Park, described the recent gathering of social ministry volunteers from around coastal and western Monmouth County.

Upperman was one of about 40 parish volunteers and representatives of Catholic Charities, Collier Services and Good Counsel Homes who attended the Jan. 29 meeting in St. Catharine Parish, Holmdel.

The gathering was one of five around the counties of Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean, called by Sister Joanne to bring social ministry volunteers together to brainstorm.

The aim, Sister Joanne said, is not only to foster camaraderie and collaboration among the parish volunteers, but to keep current on ongoing and new issues and needs.

All of the meetings have been moderated by Sister Joanne and open with participants sharing their accomplishments and their insights about the critical needs of their communities. At the coastal Monmouth session, those concerns focused on housing, food resources, transportation and employment.

Reflecting on the Coastal Monmouth session several days later, Upperman shared her insights on the gathering.

“It was so worthy,” said Upperman, whose active participation with a group of volunteers from Mother of Mercy Parish has turned the St. Peter Claver Center into a beehive of assistance in Asbury Park’s struggling West Side neighborhood.

Upperman said the two-hour session allowed all concerned to share and experience feedback “in a much wider aspect” than volunteers in parish social ministry usually encounter.

“It was very informative. You were able to share ideas and listen to new ideas that you could bring back to your conference. When you have brainstormed (with your own group) until you can’t brainstorm any more, it’s good to have that kind of feedback.”

Upperman was one of many, including Linda Altini and Roseanne Duffy of St. Robert Bellarmine Parish, Freehold, who expressed real interest having more sessions.

Duffy and Altini took it a step further, saying they’d like the format expanded if possible, to include an informal session at the conclusion so members of the group the group can dialogue on a one-to-one basis.

“I hope there’s an update every six months or a yearly networking,” said Altini, who, with Duffy, dedicates her service to the SRB (St. Robert Bellarmine) Help Center. It was good, Altini said, to meet so many “great people who are doing great things and getting ideas that we can bring back to our parish.”

Duffy expressed similar enthusiasm, saying the outreach meeting at which participants shared information on the programs in their parishes – showed the scope of what’s offered not only by the parishes of Coastal Monmouth County but support agencies, such as Catholic Charities. The outreach was eye-opening, said Duffy. “I didn’t realize all of the ministries and the support communities.”

Connie Becraft, executive director of the St. Francis Community Center, Brant Beach, attended the outreach session held in St. Luke Parish, Toms River.

Noting that the center provides services over a broad geographic swath of southern Ocean County, Becraft praised the outreach concept for affording St. Francis an “opportunity to collaborate with other supportive services we may not provide. Although St. Francis Center provides many services throughout southern Ocean County, if we have client need for services north of Forked River we will refer to those programs.”

A great example of that collaboration is working with the food pantry of St. Luke Parish, Toms River. “We had the good fortune to tour the facility with volunteers. They were very passionate regarding the services they provide. We shared ideas and contacts which turned out to be very helpful for our clients living in northern Ocean County.”

Passion is a word Sister Joanne uses often when describing the commitment of the social ministry volunteers throughout the Diocese. “Every parish reaches out on ways that depend on the population and the needs. … They are all really committed with a passion. For some, the focus is on housing, for some, its career transitions. They utilize their skills to help people.”

Meeting the Needs

In the near future, the feedback from the Parish Social Ministry gatherings should start bearing fruit. Focus sessions on some of the critical issues – housing, food resources, employment – are apt to be held, Sister Joanne said.

Sessions on grant writing and viewing contemporary issues through the lens of Catholic social teaching are also likely to be considered.

“Talking face to face” is a way to gather good feedback and put it into action.

To see what can happen, one has only to check out the new entry on the diocesan website for Diocese of Trenton Parish Counseling Services.

Sponsored by the Diocese and Catholic Charities, the short term, modestly priced, six session program operated by parishes for their members, is a direct result of such communication said Maureen Fitzsimmons, LPC, diocesan director of parish counseling.

“When Sister Joanne came to the Diocese and began to visit parishes and most specifically deanery meetings and asked: what is it that you need from us, the universal response (from the priests) was effective, inexpensive counseling from folks who are Catholic,” said Fitzsimmons.

So direct and unified was the request that a decision was taken to move in cooperation with Catholic Charities toward a collaborative plan that would offer counseling at a reasonable cost. With 27 years at Catholic Charities, Fitzsimmons was brought on board to coordinate the program which officially launched in the fall.

The program is designed to help parishioners through difficult issues such as marital problems, raising children, eldercare, bereavement, the stress of job loss that can be successfully addressed by brief counseling support. It is not geared for those with severe or persistent mental illness.

Working from Catholic Charities sites or private offices, counselors are experienced with an array of difficulties and diverse clientele, Fitzsimmons said.

Sister Joanne points to the program as an example of how important it is to listen, to dialogue and collaborate.

She summed up this philosophy at the Coastal Monmouth Outreach meeting: “I don’t pretend to know it all but I do know how to get in touch with the people who do. … It’s very important to hear what parishes are doing and to look at unmet needs in order to expand our ability to collaborate and network and offer advocacy and service.”