Catholic Campaign for Human Development empowers local activists to fight poverty, injustice

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PROVIDENCE — Giovanna Rodriguez was living and working independently in Rhode Island when she met the guy she would later describe as “Prince Charming.” Responsible and “an all-around nice guy,” he seemed on the surface like the ideal partner. It wasn’t until after they entered into a relationship that she found herself in a situation she never expected to be in.

“Very quickly things started to change and there were some red flags,” she said during an interview at the offices of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “Ultimately, that led to physical abuse.”

The couple moved out of state and he pressured her to stay at home and not work, effectively controlling all the finances. She thought about leaving but worried about insurance and how to support her kids. Finally, with the help of family, she was able to end the relationship and move back to Rhode Island, and began taking steps to regain her independence. For a long time, she felt she couldn’t talk about the experience.

“I didn’t feel at that particular time that I was ready,” she said.

That all changed, however, when she saw a play called “Behind Closed Doors,” during which survivors of domestic violence recounted their true stories of abuse and recovery. The play was put on by Sisters Overcoming Abusive Relationships (SOAR), a task force of former victims of domestic violence overseen by the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Rodriguez realized that by joining SOAR and speaking to others about her experience, she could help inspire others to end and prevent abusive relationships.

“I met with a coordinator and we talked about my story and I finally felt like I wasn’t alone in this. That I could find my voice with the hopes of helping others,” she said.

Rodriguez now participates regularly in public events with other SOAR members, sharing her story with college students and even performing in a recent production of “Behind Closed Doors.” As a SOAR member, she also advocates for legal policies that prevent domestic violence and attends workshops that help women develop the skills they need to live independently from their abusers.

SOAR is one of several organizations around the state receiving support from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), a grant program that fights poverty by supporting groups that empower victims to change their situation. CCHD is funded by an annual collection and consists of both local and national committees overseen by the Diocese of Providence and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“We work to strengthen the laws and change society’s acceptance of domestic violence,” said Deborah DeBare, executive director of the RI Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “So that’s where the CCHD grants come into play because that’s helping us to do some of the bigger picture work.”

John Barry, diocesan Secretary for Catholic Charities and Social Ministry, oversees applications for CCHD grants distributed locally. In an interview at the chancery, he explained that groups applying for CCHD grants are evaluated by a number of factors, including the extent to which those impacted by the organization’s mission are directly involved in its work and governance.

“It’s self-determination, it’s empowerment, it’s allowed people to rise from the situation they’re in and change that situation for everybody by collective action,” he said.

According to Barry, CCHD-supported programs may be religious or secular and are distinct from diocesan-sponsored Catholic Charity ministries. In addition to empowering victims to speak out about their own situations, programs receiving CCHD grants tend to focus on root causes and advocate against policies that perpetuate poverty and injustice.

“Many of our local charity programs help individuals. They meet immediate needs,” said Barry, contrasting these programs with those that receive support from CCHD. “Through CCHD, the Catholic community joins with those affected.”

Another CCHD-supported organization, the Rhode Island Center for Justice, offers a glimpse into how CCHD grants can complement diocesan-sponsored ministries. The Center for Justice is a non-profit, public interest law firm that works to defend the rights of low-income individuals, particularly in the area of utilities policy through its Lifeline Project. While the diocesan “Keep the Heat On” program provides emergency utility assistance to consumers facing gas and electric shutoff, the Lifeline Project works to prevent consumers from reaching a crisis point by ensuring that laws protecting medically vulnerable individuals from utilities shutoff are observed by power companies and the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission.

Penny Medeiros, a client of the Center for Justice, shared her story with Rhode Island Catholic during an interview at her Tiverton home. Medeiros, 51, relies on a motorized nebulizer due to a lung condition. She described the day – a declared Ozone Alert day, she recalled – when the electricity was turned off at her home because she was behind in paying off the growing balance.

“All of a sudden everything stopped. It was like a bomb went off. The TV went off, the AC went off. I knew something was wrong,” she said.

Without power, and the nebulizer that runs on it, Medeiros was forced to switch to a portable oxygen tank, from which it is not advisable for someone with her lung condition to breathe the air from for as long as 7–8 hours, as she was forced to that day due to the closure of her electricity.

“We’re very appreciative of the support of the CCHD,” Medeiros said, speaking for herself and her adult daughters, who live nearby and help their mother whenever they can.

“It’s wonderful,” she said of the generosity of those who contribute to the collection. “The more money the Church gets, the more people they can help.”

Medeiros is one of several clients currently participating in a class action lawsuit brought by the Center for Justice against National Grid and the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission. According to Executive Director Robert McCreanor, the Center has already reached a settlement with National Grid, which has led to greater enforcement of laws protecting medically vulnerable consumers from immediate shutoff of utilities.

“With the help of CCHD, we’ve been able to have a direct impact on the lives of very vulnerable people in Rhode Island who before this project were hospitalized or faced eviction,” said McCreanor.

The local CCHD collection, scheduled annually for the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving, will take place on Sunday, November 20 at all parishes in the Diocese of Providence. Funds will be distributed both locally and nationally. For more information about the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, visit www.dioceseofprovidence.org/cchd-grants.