by Lucy Medvec & Jessica Rinaudo
Since its inception in 2010, Catholic Charities of North Louisiana (CCNLA) has dug its roots into the Shreveport-Bossier community and has begun to spread them across the state to Lake Providence and Monroe. Through its vast array of social programs, CCNLA helps people not only meet their immediate needs, but also receive education on everything from money management to healthy eating, child care and safety to English as a second language.
Giving Families a Hand Up
April is one of the many hundreds of people Catholic Charities helps each year. April, 25, has three young children and her work fluctuates depending on how business is going. She found herself in need this past summer. Upon her mother’s suggestion, she approached Catholic Charities to both receive help paying her rent and to attend their Money School classes.
“I learned how to budget and save a little money when I come across it,” said April. “Mr. Carl [Piehl] showed me how to budget with food, how to save my money, save my meals, save my food and use my food stamps.”
The three-hour class takes place weekly and is a requirement for those seeking financial assistance from Catholic Charities.
“Our philosophy is, whether or not we can help you financially, we want to educate you. We want to help you with a budget and show you ways you can effectively use your money,” said Lucy Medvec, CCNLA Director of Development.
While attending the Money School classes, teacher and Director of Financial Education and Emergency Assistance Carl Piehl told April about Gabriel’s Closet – a ministry of Catholic Charities that reaches out to parents and young children, providing everything from children’s clothes to diapers, formula, car seats and pack and plays.
“With Gabriel’s Closet there’s no cash ever exchanged there, they earn merits,” said Lucy, “and they can earn merits not just by watching parenting videos, but by going to doctors appointments, taking their children to doctors appointments, working and turning in check stubs. If they go to church they can bring their church bulletin in and get merits for that.”
“It’s quite reasonable in the sense that they don’t need a large number of merits to get a car seat. The items are very achievable because we want clients to have a buy-in in a sense,” Lucy added. “We want to educate people and we feel that Gabriel’s Closet is really good in helping them become the best parents they can be.”
Gabriel’s Closet has been a huge relief and help for April and her family. The Closet has allowed her to provide clothing for her three-year-old and four-year-old children, freeing up funds to supply her five-year-old with clothing. “It takes so much stress off of me,” she said.
When asked about earning merits, April talked enthusiastically about some of the videos she has watched and things she has learned, especially the video about car seat safety. “I didn’t use to have my kids in car seats, but that changed a lot. The videos showed me a lot of safety information, because I could easily lose my kids by not having them in a car seat. That made an impact on me,” said April.
In addition to the videos, there are also bi-monthly live classes on baby safety taught by volunteer nurses.
Gabriel’s Closet is one of the most visible ministries of Catholic Charities and operates purely on donations from individuals, churches and schools. It is manned by volunteers twice a week. Lucy said more volunteers is one of Catholic Charities’ chief needs. Right now the Closet is open twice a week, but they would like to open it more frequently with the help of volunteers.
Taking the Initiative: From Immigration to Education
In 2012, Catholic Charities of North Louisiana saw a void in the community for services available to the immigrant population. With the formation of its Immigration Integration Services Program, CCNLA slowly grew its program and over the years added an Immigration Advocate and Immigration Attorney to its staff. CCNLA has been able to provide a variety of services to low-income immigrants including assistance with legal documentation, relative petitions for family members, visas for immigrants seeking humanitarian relief, English as Second language classes and classes for U.S. citizenship.
Catholic Charities is the only agency in North Louisiana recognized by the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). Although the majority of its clients are provided assistance through the Shreveport office, immigration services will be offered on a regular basis in the Monroe office beginning in 2017. CCNLA has three members on staff who are fluent in Spanish and is able to offer all of its programs, including the Money School, in Spanish. Since 2012, hundreds of immigrants have received assistance from Catholic Charities and have become active members of their communities. One such client felt a particular need to show his gratitude.
Raymund Benavidez, 52, first came to Catholic Charities of North Louisiana in November 2013 seeking help in converting his dependent visa to a work visa. A native of Cebu, Philippines, Raymund and his wife, Maria came to Shreveport in May 2010 with their two daughters. Raymund received help with the conversion of his visa through Catholic Charities’ Immigration Integration program and immigration attorney, Briana Bianca.
After learning more about Catholic Charities’ programs, he saw a need for a nutrition program and offered his expertise as a chef to teach clients how to cook healthy foods while living on a limited income. In March 2014, CCNLA’s Healthy Eating on a Budget Initiative was created, offering free cooking demonstrations twice a month as well as nutrition classes and grocery store tours. During these demonstrations, clients learn how to purchase healthy foods and prepare them for their families. After Chef Raymund prepares the food, they get to eat the meal and take the recipes home to prepare for their families.
Raymund currently works as a sushi chef for Margaritaville Casino and his wife, Maria, teaches special education at a local high school. Their daughters attend school locally. As a family, they are currently applying for permanent residency in the United States.
The services offered by CCNLA’s Immigration Integration program helped the Benavidez family become engaged in the community. Raymund sees his volunteer service to Catholic Charities as a way of giving back to an organization that was able to help his family.
“What I enjoy most,” says Raymund “is teaching them not only how to prepare the food, but how to taste it and enjoy it. Too often, we eat our food so quickly that we are not taking the time to enjoy the taste, smell and experience of eating good food together as a family.”
Gilda Rada-Garcia serves as the Program Coordinator for Healthy Eating on a Budget. She works closely with Raymund to prepare for the cooking demonstrations and teaches the nutrition education portion of each class. “Raymund is very committed as a volunteer. He works well with the clients and wants to talk to them about ingredients and cooking techniques,” said Gilda. “When teaching cooking classes to families, he works well with the children and is very patient.”
Growing Services in Monroe & Lake Providence
In July 2013, Catholic Charities of North Louisiana expanded its service area to help people in northeast Louisiana with the opening of an office in Lake Providence in 2013, and most recently, in Monroe this past May.
The Lake Providence office is run solely by volunteers under the guidance of Sr. Bernadette (Bernie) Barrett. There, they teach The Money School and give emergency assistance funds for rent and utility bills to those in need. The dedication of Sr. Bernie and her army of volunteers and donors has created a vital organization to one of the poorest areas in Louisiana. The Lake Providence office wants to expand its services in 2017 to include SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits enrollment and the Cooking Matters grocery store tour program, teaching low-income families how to shop for healthy and affordable food items at the store.
Joann Worley serves as the Program Coordinator for the Monroe CCNLA office. A parishioner of Jesus the Good Shepherd Parish, Joann teaches The Money School and serves as case manager for clients who seek assistance. In addition to giving emergency assistance funds to help with rent and utility bills, the Monroe office also helps low-income parents through its Gabriel’s Corner, a small “shop” that contains baby necessities including clothes, diapers, formula and baby wipes. Clients, both male and female, can also receive professional clothing for job interviews. Joann and her volunteers work with clients from as far away as Ruston and Grambling to provide financial education and assistance. In 2017, the Monroe office will offer immigration services as well as SNAP benefits enrollment to clients throughout northeast Louisiana.
Catholic Charities of North Louisiana is always working to carry out the social justice arm of the Church, and the staff and volunteers do so with love and compassion. Their care for clients shows. “My kids love coming here, they love the people,” said April. “And ever since I started coming here, it gives me a little peace of mind… I can come here and be in the lobby for five to 10 minutes and it’s like being in church. It’s so peaceful.”
For more information on donations and volunteering, contact Lucy Medvec at 318-865-0200, ext. 101, or email@example.com. •