By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald
The image of a Catholic church parish offering charitable assistance to the needy sometimes leans heavily on the “mom-and-pop” theme: a few inspired volunteers, here and there, offering food or emergency cash to individuals in need of a helping hand.
Twenty-six years ago, St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Slidell decided to connect that familiar base of inspired volunteers with a leadership structure and sleek technology to form The Good Samaritan Ministry (Good Sams), which has grown into a model for east St. Tammany civil parish of Catholic social teaching blended with measurement tools to assess the effectiveness of its efforts.
“All we’re trying to do is to meet the needs of the community,” said Sue Rotolo, a former IBM executive with high-level computer programming skills who has helped run the program for the last 17 years, succeeding founding director Ann Creighton. “There are two things we provide. We offer immediate financial aid for any bill of necessity, and then we are exceptionally well-networked with resources that are available to help people long term. We often link those two.
“We practice good stewardship. We require a lot of validation and verification before we give out aid, and we are 100% volunteer-run. That allows us to be a good steward of the money that comes in and goes back to the community. There is not a dollar that is spent on salaries or on consultants.”
Volunteers meet the need
Good Sams has a core group of 45 to 50 volunteers, which expands to 145 when needed for seasonal programs such as Christmas gift-giving, Thanksgiving meals and school backpacks for children. In August, Good Sams distributed backpacks stuffed with school supplies to 285 elementary school and 35 high school students.
“The goodness coming out of this is phenomenal,” Rotolo said. “It’s God’s providence.”
This is no small effort. In addition to about $250,000 in cash expenses each year, Good Sams distributes help through another $250,000 in donated goods and services. Those goods range from food, diapers, dental care, legal services and even car repair.
“People just want to give back,” Rotolo said. “This program not only helps clients in need, but it also educates a very high level of volunteers on the barriers to poverty. It helps them realize that ‘there, but for the grace of God, go I.’ The need is not because the client doesn’t want to work. Most of our clients are making $8 or $10 an hour, and if one thing hits, they can go into a downward spiral.”
Good Sams is funded mostly through tithing by St. Luke the Evangelist and St. Margaret Mary parishes in Slidell, private donations and fund-raising awards. Even though the program has six months of reserve funds on hand, it took a financial hit 18 months ago when a sales tax renewal in St. Tammany Parish failed, which led to a budget cut and the loss to Good Sams of $60,000 in annual donations.
To bridge that gap, Good Sams launched a Community Chest program that encouraged businesses in the Slidell area to help. Thus far, more than $25,000 has been raised, including significant support from Steve Ernst, owner of Resolve Systems, a private water utility.
Businesses give back
When customers in danger of having their water shut off due to non-payment contact Resolve Systems, they are told to contact Good Sams, which after an interview, will write a check to Resolve Systems to cover the amount in arrears. Ernst then will write a check back to Good Sams for that same amount.
“If customers call us and tell us what’s going on, we try to work with them,” Ernst said. “We refer them to Good Sams, and they do a very good job vetting them. They are helping people in so many ways, and not just with utility bills. They help with gas, car repairs and other things, and most of what they do goes under the radar. They prop them up long enough for them to get on their feet.”
In order to qualify for emergency cash assistance, clients are asked to sign a commitment letter that outlines the steps they need to take in order to receive the money.
“We’re trying to be good stewards and instill a sense of personal responsibility,” Rotolo said. “If they can’t do the steps required to return with a current bill or go to a one-hour meeting to get paid, then they must not need it that badly.”
Besides St. Margaret Mary, other Catholic church collaborators of Good Sams are Sts. Peter and Paul in Pearl River and Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Genevieve in Slidell. Good Sams keep track of its weekly clients and files reports with the other churches to let them know who living within their parish boundaries has come for assistance.
The goal is not to give just a one-time financial payment but link persons up with other needed resources, such as housing and job training. Goods Sams has a 19-page resource list of governmental and private agencies that can offer help.
“On my desk is information from a 60-year-old woman living in a 10-by-30 shack, which was meant to be a storage shed,” Rotolo said. “No electricity, no running water. She was using a bucket to flush the toilet. I can reach out to one of our partners. The next thing you know, this lady is in a livable situation.”
Clients can receive cash assistance only once a year, but they can still benefit from other year-round programs. Good Sams is a distribution point for Food for Seniors – which serves 200 families a month – and Second Harvest Food Bank, an agency of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, distributes food in the region through other partners. The parish Men’s Club and Knights of Columbus help deliver food to the homebound.
Good Sams is open Monday-Friday at St. Luke the Evangelist, (985) 641-6421; www.saintlukeslidell.org/goodsams. Good Sams accepts donations of all kinds, including financial contributions, time, talent, food, goods, diapers and wipes, pro bono services, volunteer hours and more. Please make checks payable to “The Good Samaritan Ministry,” and mail to 910 Cross Gates Blvd, Slidell, LA 70461. The Emergency Food Pantry assists families in crisis by providing food baskets to those without SNAP benefits or who are experiencing an emergency. Donations of beans, rice, canned fruit, tomato sauces, pasta, vegetables, crackers, cereal, rice, canned meats, peanut butter, toothpaste, deodorant and soap are needed.