EAST PROVIDENCE — A homeless man sits comfortably in the cafeteria of a local day shelter. He rests his head on a table moments before Bishop Thomas J. Tobin greets him.
The man, who wished to remain unidentified, has a gift for the bishop. It’s an angel figurine he made out of recycled items.
Bishop Tobin holds the figurine as a volunteer gives him a tour of the shelter, which also includes a soup kitchen and food pantry, and is housed at the former St. Brendan School at 55 Turner Ave. in East Providence. While the school closed in 2009, Good Neighbors Inc., an independent non-profit organization, moved into the space at St. Brendan’s Parish about a month ago.
“It’s another expression of how the Church wants to be a ‘good neighbor’ with the community,” said Bishop Tobin, who recently visited the shelter to present a $4,000 donation to be split between the parish and Good Neighbors. The parish share will assist in the direct operational costs of the facility.
“This initiative is serving a great need. Even though the school is no longer here, the building continues to carry on the work of Christ in feeding the poor and the hungry.”
During his visit, Bishop Tobin told staffers and volunteers that the donation was granted on behalf of the Lumen Gentium fund, an annual diocesan awards ceremony that honors dedicated Catholic individuals and groups. In turn, members of Good Neighbors offered their gratitude.
“We are delighted by the support we’ve received from the Church,” said Board President Wendy Davis.
Executive Director Ann Wiard feels the same. She said the funds will be used to help finance two programs, such as the “Holiday Store,” which welcomes parents in need to visit the shelter and take home gifts for their children at no cost, as well as “Food 4 Kids,” an initiative that’s implemented in the spring and summer.
“Every week, families come in and get kid-friendly food,” said Wiard, noting that while some children receive subsidized meals during the school year, that need tends to be overlooked in the summer.
Prior to being housed at St. Brendan, Good Neighbors operated out of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Bristol for 24 years. Due to tight quarters, they decided to relocate.
“This is a perfect space,” Davis said.
Father John Codega, pastor of St. Brendan, said the parish had been making plans to open something similar. As he and parishioners were working on details, they received word that Good Neighbors was looking for a new home.
“What was going to be a one-day-a-week trial balloon, quickly took shape into a five-day-a-week, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. operation,” said Father Codega, noting the shelter’s hours. “We had to do some physical work in the kitchen and former school building, [but] on November 3, opened our doors.”
On the first day, about 25 people visited the new location. Within a few weeks, said Father Codega, the number nearly doubled.
“It’s projected that it will be in the triple digits soon, showing the unfortunate need in this area and beyond,” he said. “I think it’s a good example of how we are repurposing the former school building to meet today’s needs and reaching out to the community’s needs, as well.”
Arthur Donnelly, who serves as a floor manager, said he witnesses God’s work at play each day. For example, whenever he and other volunteers are preparing meals in the soup kitchen and run out of an ingredient, a delivery truck mysteriously appears with items they need. Similarly, the shelter received an air mattress the day before a client informed him that she was in need of a bed, as she had been sleeping on the floor of a friend’s apartment.
“She said, ‘God must really be looking out for me,’” Donnelly said. “It happens all the time. We refer to it as ‘divine intervention.’”
Donnelly went on to say that Good Neighbors offers guests hot breakfast from 8 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. and lunch at 11:30 a.m., as well as encourages them to visit the onsite food pantry. He said it is stocked with healthy food options for patrons to take home with them.
Additionally, visitors are able to spend time in the rest area, which includes a television, plus a computer station. He and other volunteers are hoping to hook up a washer and dryer set for patrons to do their laundry.
“They can hang out, watch TV and use the washer and dryer,” he said. “We provide detergent.”
They also distribute free clothing, as they recently came to an agreement with East Bay Community Action, another local non-profit organization. Through the agency’s program, Career Closet, they donate appropriate work attire to men and women who are seeking employment.
“We set it up so they can pick out what they want,” said Donnelly, noting that Good Neighbors also supplies hygiene products and cosmetics upon request.
Donnelly, along with Davis and Wiard, as well as Executive Assistant Amy Hutchings, enjoy assisting people in need. Davis, who often writes grants for the organization, praised the board for its devotion to the mission, while Donnelly thanked local grocery stores and bakeries for donating food.
As the weather gets colder, they anticipate seeing more and more people. Donnelly pointed out that word about the shelter is spreading quickly, as members of the homeless community frequently alert one another of places that help.
Bishop Tobin agreed.
“We see that at Emmanuel House all the time,” Bishop Tobin said of the diocesan homeless shelter, which is located in Providence. “They take care of each other.”
Before he left the shelter, the bishop commended Good Neighbors for caring for the poor and homeless. Shaking each of their hands, he told them he admires their good work.
“It’s amazing what you are doing,” Bishop Tobin said.
To learn more about Good Neighbors or to make a donation, visit Good NeighborsRI.org. Find them on Facebook at Good Neighbors Soup Kitchen.