A Service Story

Alternative Winter Break with Rosemont College

The eight Rosemont College students who pulled into Scranton on Jan. 6, could have spent winter break like their classmates back in Montgomery County – catching up with family and friends, sleeping in, Neflix and chilling. But inspired by their small Catholic school’s commitment to service, they signed up for AWB – alternative winter break.

Led by Campus Ministry staff Timothy Poole and Gina Ingiosi, the team planned to volunteer at Friends of the Poor and the Community Intervention Center after three days at the Catherine McAuley Center. The annual Scranton service trip began about five years ago under former ministry service coordinator Kerry Madden, an alum of the University of Scranton. Other recent service projects at Rosemont include a clothing and food drive in conjunction with St. Francis Inn Ministries, which serves the poor and homeless in Philadelphia, during Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week in November.

 The volunteers’ Monday work at McAuley would be to restore the Center to pre-Christmas condition, packing up holiday decorations and leftover toys and storing them away for next year’s holiday. But first, the students joined staff in the board room for a morning snack and orientation. Their matching Rosemont-maroon t-shirts featured an illustration of Scranton’s landmark Electric City sign on the front and an inspirational Michael Scott (NBC’s The Office) quote on the back: “I am Beyonce always.”

Asked about previous experiences and perceptions of homelessness, Tim spoke about his time as a University of Scranton student volunteering at the soup kitchen. While that experience left him with no particular expectations of “the homeless,” he understands he wasn’t really paying attention back then. His awareness has increased with age and he’s come to understand “they” are not that much different from “us” and we can learn from them. Although obligated to discuss the issue of safety with the traveling students, Tim said he hasn’t personally had any negative experiences.

A returning student who participated in last year’s AWB, Dillon said she hadn’t thought about how homelessness can happen to anyone until she began volunteering.

“We don’t think about their lives before or after (homelessness),” she noted. “They don’t choose it.”

Though television and movies often depict homeless as drug addicts or suffering extreme mental illness, one of the most likely reasons people become homeless, the students learned, include family illness and medical bills. As with many other “rust belt” cities, economic depression in the region lingered as dependable, family-sustaining manufacturing jobs were replaced with low-wage, part-time service and retail jobs. The less-depicted reality is that many families just don’t net enough income to cover the rising costs of housing.

Case manager with the Permanent Supportive Housing program, Nicole Guzenski, arrived to help with the clean-up, but first spoke to the students about her work for the Center. The unique population of clients she serves are single adults, most in their late 40s through early 60s. Among the eight individuals she is currently working with to develop independent living skills are two men. All are formerly homeless with some mental or physical limitations and are housed in apartments in close proximity to the center.

“Many have been here for a while,” she said. In addition to practical training, she also arranges for social events to decrease feelings of isolation among her clients.

The volunteers went on to sort toys into bins, labeling them with color-coded signs before moving them into storage to wait until next year’s events. Another pair of volunteers moved to the lobby to remove holiday decorations. The self-determined four strongest of the bunch elected to move bins to storage.

Following Monday’s first unglamorous day of cleaning up the aftermath of Christmas, Tuesday’s shopping and cooking dinner for families at the Catherine McAuley House in Plymouth hardly felt like work. The former rectory for St. Vincent’s Church next door, the Luzerne County shelter was made available to the McAuley Center through an arrangement with the diocese in 1989. Grant-funding will allow for much needed renovations in the near future.

Although the shelter can technically house up to 10 families, no more than six can be accommodated with the current staff available, case manager Emilia Rosas explained before the Rosemont students headed out to the grocery store to shop for fresh taco dinner ingredients.

 Emilia started with the McAuley Center in Scranton as an intern before she was hired to work at the house in Plymouth. Among her duties is returning inquiries regarding services and checking potential clients for qualifications. Proof of a minimum of six months residence in Luzerne County is required as it’s not uncommon for people moving to NEPA from outside the area to seek emergency shelter during relocation. Eligible clients are allowed to stay for 30 days as Emilia works with them to stabilize their lives and prevent recurring homelessness.

 Most of the Catherine McAuley Center programs are focused on intervention to keep families intact, so children will not be separated from their mothers. Case managers then work with families to heal the trauma that leads to homelessness and often a “complete loss of dignity and self-worth.”

After their service trip is over and they return to classes at Rosemont, the group will hold a reunion meeting and reflect on their experience. The visit is one of the annual highlights at the Catherine McAuley Center and we hope to see them return for many years to come.