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‘Needs’ on rise at Rural Ministry

During the summer, it is not uncommon to see people standing on the side of a road in Dunkirk or Fredonia. Especially at the Walmart entrance, there are individuals, and sometimes families with pets, holding signs asking for charity. It is hard not to stare (at what we likely wish was not there). And for the length of one stoplight, we are confronted with the harsh reality of homelessness, along with our own assumptions about why those people are there. Then we drive on, pushing away the unwelcome image like changing a TV channel.

But to ignore them doesn’t solve the problem. Nor does blaming them. Like the ghosts of our subconscious, they are bound to reappear, and in even greater numbers if it weren’t for charitable organizations devoted to helping fellow human beings in need.

The Chautauqua County Rural Ministry on Washington Avenue in Dunkirk provides services and social programs to assist the homeless as well as a host of others who struggle with a wide variety of life-coping issues. The Ministry’s doors are open to anyone who can’t meet the basic survival needs of food, clothing, shelter and first aid.

But it offers much more than subsistence; its mission: “to advocate for the needs of our disenfranchised brothers and sisters so they may increasingly gain control of their lives.” To this end, the Ministry provides services to about 250 individuals every day.

There are many possible reasons for someone losing control of the trajectory of his or her life. It happens to people of different ages, from young adults to senior citizens, and across racial and ethnic lines. In an increasingly technology-dependent society, some folks just don’t have the aptitude for navigating the required channels to gain employment. Some may have recently lost a job and have been unsuccessful in finding a new one. Others have run away from domestic violence. Still others have struggled with addiction. Most problematic are those who suffer from various forms of mental illness.

Working in collaboration with other organizations, including Catholic Charities, Chautauqua Mental Health Department, and the Department of Health and Human Services, the Ministry tries to assist all those who come seeking help. Executive Director Bridgete Majka asserts that “we provide basic needs first, no questions asked” prior to involving other agencies. Once they are registered with the Ministry, individuals may participate in myriad programs designed to help improve their lives.

Since its inception in the 1950s, the agency has expanded to include an array of innovative programs. Foremost are the food services – the Friendly Kitchen and Food Pantry which have grown to serve over 2,300 meals per month. Director Majka is quick to laud the creative work of kitchen manager Diane Haggins and head cook Nakita Stewart, who “go beyond the basic nutrition to provide 5-star meals”.

The “Gleaning” program is a community effort designed to ensure healthy produce and to rescue food that would otherwise be wasted. Alex Majka coordinates food recovery efforts with Fredonia State College dining halls, local churches, Walmart, and Little Caesars pizza. Rob Dorman initiates all kinds of community invested agricultural initiatives. Nutrition Coordinator Sherry Lantz provides guidance in terms of nutrition and general health. She also manages Murial’s Closet and Bookstore and the Garment Gallery.

The main goals of the Ministry are to help individuals manage the present and to plan for the future. In addition to first aid, emergency housing and transportation, job search assistance is also available. A community as well as a ministry, there are also special celebrations on holidays.

Perhaps the most dramatic service is the parent coaching program. Director Majka tells the story of a young woman with serious substance abuse issues whose child was taken from her just after birth. Despite initial resistance to offers of help, she eventually found a path to a more stable lifestyle, including a full-time job. Within three years she was able to claim her daughter from a foster home.

Director Majka reminds us that every case involves a unique individual with a unique set of circumstances. But what’s consistent for all who reach out – what they need more than anything else – is the desire to be heard, to be listened to and respected as persons of dignity. If we can prove that we genuinely care, we’ve one half the battle.

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