Spiritual Reflections

Friends of the Poor: What I Have Received…

We aren’t just a social service agency. We are a sponsored ministry, and that means we are so much more. We are a sliver of hope, a safe place to land, and hand to hold when the journey becomes too much to bear alone.

DISCLAIMER: I’ve written this article from the heart, with as much honesty as possible, in order to illustrate what my experience has been as a lay-leader of an IHM sponsored ministry. It reflects only my own thoughts and feelings as I’ve navigated these last several years, and I hope it also shows the incredible personal growth I’ve been afforded because of my connection to each of you. 

On the morning of July 10, 2017, I anxiously got dressed in what I thought was the perfect “business casual” look: cropped dress pants, a lightweight blouse, and a comfortable pair of flats. Not quite the fashion statement I’d imagined a young CEO would have on her first day, but this was Friends of the Poor. I needed to be ready and able to do some manual labor, right? Oh, the naivete. 

What would follow that week would be the emptying of an entire warehouse of food, program supplies, and furniture (including a baby grand piano) into trailers while we searched for a new storage facility. We would feed hundreds of people, get dozens of children up and on the school bus to our STEM summer camp at Keystone College, help families with outstanding water bills, and be a welcoming, comforting presence to all who came through our doors. There were also 4 pairs of dress pants and 4 accompanying blouses that were destroyed. Sister Ann would, of course, replace them immediately with items she found in just my size and color. (Only 4 ruined outfits because, although probably much too slowly, I did learn by Friday to wear jeans, sneakers, and a Friends of the Poor T-shirt. I promise, I have become a much quicker learner since.) 

Those first few weeks were a whirlwind. There was never a shortage of work to be done, people to help, or calls to return. I looked at Sister Ann Walsh and her Jesuit Volunteer at the time, Peter Kramer, in complete awe. They never stopped. I don’t think I saw either of them eat or use the restroom once. I was, for the first time in my life, completely exhausted physically and emotionally. How could these two people, so different at first glance, share the exact same energy, compassion, and temperament? They didn’t even speak to each other in full sentences. Was I witnessing telepathy for the first time? 

I now know that I was witnessing sponsorship in action. Later that first week, or maybe it was into the second or third, Sister Ann recommended I move from our “mobile office,” aka her car, to the IHM Center on occasion to address the administrative work. I was given a home in a corner office within the same hallway as the IHM Leadership Team. It was so quiet I could hear a pin drop. I was terrified. I had not had much interaction with any sisters outside of my elementary school days and the interview process for my new role, much less the head honchos of all the nuns! At that point, most of what I knew about the sponsorship relationship was that Sister Ellen Maroney was my boss’s boss, and I was technically also the boss at Friends of the Poor. Talk about a metaphysical conundrum. If I messed up in this hallway, would I be out of a job? If that happened, who would work at FOP? Peter would be finishing his service year any day, and Sister Ann was working towards retirement. Clearly, at this point, I was still too deeply entrenched in the organizational hierarchy mindset of some of my previous employers. But, not for long. 

At some point within the first few weeks, I was scheduled to meet Sister Terry O’Rourke for our first sponsorship lesson. I was told Sister Terry coordinated special projects for Friends of the Poor, like our seasonal programming, but that she knew quite a bit about sponsorship and would be a great teacher. What was left out, though, was that this calm, articulate, and incredibly intelligent woman was the former President of the Congregation, of St. Joseph’s Center, a principal, a superintendent, social worker, and teacher with more degrees, awards, publications, and presentations than I could count. She was one of the most impressive people I’ve ever seen on paper, and here she was going to teach me about sponsorship. As I walked into her tiny office on the 3rd floor of the IHM Center, and for the umpteenth time since that July 10th morning, my brain could not process what my eyes were seeing. What in the world had I gotten myself into? Here, again, was another office, another location, of Friends of the Poor. I could now count three different spaces within the IHM Center, a half-dozen Scranton Housing Authority Family Developments, a warehouse, and Clothes Line for Men. Eleven locations in all, not even considering the dozens of kitchen tables and desks where our volunteers and donors gathered on their own time to further our mission. What agency, especially with so few staff, can possibly operate, much less thrive, moving so quickly in so many different directions? 

Turns out, Friends of the Poor does. And we still do. What I learned from Sisters Ann, Terry, Regina, Carleen, Maria Goretti, Amy, Dolores, Leonnette, Mariette, Jean Louise, Betty, Mary, Jean, and so many more over the last 6.5 years, is that the existence, operations, and impact of Friends of the Poor is nothing short of divine grace. That very first lesson, Sister Terry gave me a framed picture that says, “Sponsorship is what the world looks like when God is present.” I’ve seen, and lived, that sentence every day since. What I learned, then, is that Friends of the Poor, along with other sponsored ministries, are not your typical nonprofit organizations. We aren’t an abstract entity. We are a living, breathing team, the embodiment of our mission. We are adaptable to the needs of our participants, always willing to do whatever it takes to help our friends and neighbors. The staff positions we fill are not jobs. They are vocations, and the people who hold them long-term are those who have experienced a calling they could not ignore. Our volunteers are those that come back, again and again, because they genuinely believe in what we do and feel safe and welcome in the environment we created. Our participants jump out of their spot in the food line to help another person carry their groceries down the stairs. We aren’t just a social service agency. We are a sponsored ministry, and that means we are so much more. We are a sliver of hope, a safe place to land, and hand to hold when the journey becomes too much to bear alone. 

Ann Williams, Sister Betty Bullen, Todd Pousley, Dorothy Grill, Arnell Peters (FOTP Volunteer and Sierra Store Manager), Ingrid Husisian, Harold Strickland (FOTP Volunteer), and Meghan Loftus

What I have received from Friends of the Poor extends far beyond what I could ever give in return. I’ve seen relief in thousands of parents’ faces when they realize they can now feed their children and wrap presents to put under their Christmas tree. I’ve seen the purest, most incredible joy on children’s faces as they run through the creek at our summer camp looking for frogs and splashing their friends. I’ve seen strangers turn into family among the Jackson Terrace work crew, and I’ve seen shoulders you may not expect become comfort for those in distress. I’ve collapsed on my couch after our annual Thanksgiving events in pure exhaustion. I’ve stayed awake for 48 hours straight to meet grant deadlines. I’ve laughed. I’ve cried. I’ve failed, and I’ve succeeded. I have learned resiliency in ways I never even imagined. Our team at FOP has grown, shrunk, and grown again. We’ve opened dozens of new locations and closed dozens of others. We’ve fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick or imprisoned, and welcomed strangers every single day since Sister Adrian Barrett opened our doors in 1986. We’ve done it through three IHM leaders, continue to do it through my term, and will continue to do so for decades to come. That is the magic and power of sponsorship. Our mission, our values, and the culture we create here all flow directly from the Scripture, through the IHM Congregation, and into Friends of the Poor’s every vein. I am confident that magic will continue well beyond the next 37 years of service Friends of the Poor can provide to our community. Deuteronomy (15:11) tells us there will never cease to be poor in the land. We know that, despite our best efforts to eradicate poverty, need will always exist in our community. And so long as that need exists, so will Friends of the Poor. 

“But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Let us not love in word or talk, but in deed and in truth.”

1 John 3: 17-18 

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