Fix-it Program coordinator John McCrone installs a storm door window for a senior client.
Fix-it Program coordinator John McCrone installs a storm door window for a senior client.
Although pandemic constraints once again moved the annual gala online, the Guardian Angel Benefit of Hope for Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton, pulled together honorees and sponsors for a virtual evening of generosity and inspiration.

The Sept. 9 benefit netted $211,000, meeting their fundraising goal, which will help support the more than 60 programs offered by Catholic Charities throughout the Diocese.

“Our event is all about perseverance and focusing on the things that are possible,” said Marlene Laó-Collins, CCDOT’s executive director. “Getting a glimpse into the lives of the individuals we serve is so fulfilling and is a big part of why we’re here tonight.”

Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., who serves as president of CCDOT’s board of trustees, thanked the benefactors, staff and volunteers, for their partnership in his welcome message.

“We have all been affected by this virulent coronavirus, some much more than others. But there is no doubt that the ones who have suffered most are the poor and the needy among us,” Bishop O’Connell pointed out. “As has always been the case throughout its history, Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton, has stepped up to the plate and embraced the challenge before us through its specialized services.”

This year’s Benefit of Hope took on the theme “Mission: Possible,” portraying its honorees and supporters as fellow “mission specialists” tasked with providing assistance to those in true need throughout the Diocese.

“Tonight, you’re going to be introduced to some of our programs that serve those who are struggling,” Laó-Collins continued. “You will also be introduced to some of our strongest community partners, who believe that the work we do matters. Why is all this important? Because of the generosity of our supporters, more people with addiction and mental illness can get help, fewer people will be hungry or homeless, and those traumatized by domestic violence will receive life-saving services.”

Light of Hope Honorees from each of the four counties of the Diocese expressed feelings of honor and humility – pleased to be recognized, yet shining the spotlight on Catholic Charities staff and volunteers. Honorees included Kathleen Spivey, Burlington; Mark Bolgar and Bethanne Warrack, Mercer; Damian Sylvia, Monmouth, and Elaine Molen, Ocean.

“Receiving the award is such a special thing, especially when you consider …[it’s] something I was brought up to do, something I feel is expected, and that everyone should be doing,” said Spivey. “It’s very humbling.”

“Most of us don’t encounter people in need, and if they are, you don’t know they are,” Sylvia explained. “Catholic Charities is able to identify and reach them … If everyone of us, especially young people … saw the smiles and the joy it brings to these people less fortunate, I think it would encourage them to continue doing these works and toward becoming more active… it’s tough taking that first step, but once they start, they don’t seem to stop.”

The agency also recognized SobelCo as its Corporate Citizen of the Year; John and Donna Kuchinski were awarded the Richard J. Hughes Humanitarian Award – named after the first chair of the Guardian Angel Dinner Dance 32 years prior; and Tricia was the proud recipient of the Client Achievement Award.

“It’s been such a hard year for everyone,” Donna Kuchinsi said, and noted that because of Catholic Charities’ consistency of outreach, “we decided we would like to dedicate this award to all the employees of Catholic Charities.”

“We believe they’re the true humanitarians,” her husband John agreed. “They’re on the front line every day, especially the past 18 months – they’re the ones that are truly helping the people who need help. We’re just providing any little support that we can provide.”

Catholic Charities’ El Centro, Riverbank Self-Help Center, Fix-it Program and Linkages were all featured in video presentations throughout the benefit, showcasing the unique mission of each program as well as client feedback about how the programs had assisted them.

“They took good care of us,” said Raxon, an immigrant and client of El Centro, which reaches out to the Spanish-speaking community to assist with various basic needs and immigration services. “They gave us food [and] clothes, English classes [and] an appointment for legal guidance. They also offered mental health help [and] transportation.”

“It’s a program that believes in people’s resiliency,” said El Centro founder Roberto Hernandez. “We’re all part of the same community. They are somebody; they have something to contribute.”

The Fix-it Program, operating out of Ocean County, “provides minor home repair for seniors – carpentry, plumbing and one-time chores,” said coordinator John McCrone. “It really is a neighbor helping neighbor program … it’s the best job I’ve had my whole career.”

Linkages, which assists clients experiencing housing insecurity with transitional housing in Monmouth County, seeks “to give the residents a more home-like environment,” said Stacy DePoe, program director. “Each unit here has its own bathroom and kitchen, so families are able to progress like they would in the community.”

 “When I got here it was like home,” said client Lesha. “I have great counselors, and they’ve done an amazing job helping me stay on top of virtually everything.”

Linkages client Ruben said, “I was just so grateful. It opened up a new opportunity for me – being able to take that role of being a father, taking care of my kids somewhere we could be safe.”

Riverbank Self-Help Center, Burlington County, focuses on mental health and client participation in their own recovery.

“Our goal as a self-help center is really to teach people to help themselves,” program coordinator Cindy Gambrill explained. “They learn to advocate for themselves, what their triggers may be to some of the problems they experience, and how to work through those on their own.”

“A big part of my recovery is service,” facilitator Michael Olshansky attested. “That looks like anything from leading a group on … smart recovery, to taking out the trash.”

Client Achievement Award recipient Tricia, who lived with multiple mental illnesses since childhood, has made strides since she connected with CCDOT’s Program for Assertive Community Treatment (PACT) – which serves people with serious, persistent mental illness, and helps them to live successfully in the community.

“There’s a lot of shame with mental illness; people are afraid to talk about it [and] seek help because they’re afraid they’ll be judged,” she said. “The journey is not easy; you’re going to have bumps and you’re going to fall down,” she said. “But the PACT team will help pick you back up … they’re going to work alongside you – you won’t be alone.”

For a full description of Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton’s 2021 honorees and event sponsors, visit https://www.catholiccharitiestrenton.org/events/.