PROVIDENCE — It was at once both a heartwarming scene and a concerning sight to behold.
Although her facial expression was literally masked by the N95 respirator that she wore to protect herself from COVID-19, Gladys Willis’ green eyes brightened as she came upon a stack of leftover chocolate candies and Easter bunnies — comfort food to help sweeten the anxiety brought on by these challenging times.
In the midst of the pandemic, Willis, at the age of 88, which places her in a high risk group if infected with the novel coronavirus, is someone who would benefit more by staying at home than venturing out into the community.
But running short on both supplies and money, she ventured out, with the help of her adult son Bob, to the St. Martin de Porres Senior Center where she has been a fixture in better times.
“The prices, sometimes you can’t afford it,” Willis said, of shopping for necessities in local stores.
“So this is helpful. They’re doing a good job here. God is good. He takes care of us.”
In the months following the state’s initial stay-at-home order in March, the diocesan senior center has become a godsend for many on fixed incomes who would otherwise have nowhere else to turn for food, and even diapers and other supplies for their infants and young children.
“By the grace of God we’re here. Things keep changing and we keep adapting to those changes,” said Linda, A’Vant-Deishinni, director of the St. Martin de Porres Center.
Following the initial shutdown activity ceased at the otherwise bustling center, where seniors could come all week to savor a hot meal and enjoy fellowship as they took part in myriad activities and availed themselves of health screenings and exercise programs.
But like many other aspects of industry across the world when faced with a crisis, A’Vant-Deishinni, assisted by a small cadre dedicated staff members and volunteers, including Vivian Graham, James Clements, Howard Simpson and April Brown, retooled their mission to better serve in a time of crisis.
They transformed the center’s hall, where meals, bingo and other activities would normally be held, into a makeshift food pantry to help those in need.
“It started off with just bread then slowly we began receiving other items,” A’Vant-Deishinni said, noting how several local parishes — including St. Patrick’s, Our Lady of Loretto and St. Rocco’s — began to donate foodstuffs they collected.
The City of Providence began providing St. Martin de Porres with 100 frozen meals each week, while the University of Rhode Island, began providing 100 hot meals for those in need. Whole Foods also donated food to the center.
In the first couple of months alone the diocese also provided more than $45,000 in Stop & Shop gift cards to assist those who were out of work due to the pandemic buy food.
Emmanuel House, the diocesan homeless shelter for men in South Providence, shared its bounty with those in need at St. Martin de Porres, consistently bringing food and face masks to the center.
The Diocese of Providence’s Office of Catholic Charities and Social Ministry used its bulk purchasing power to obtain some stock of toilet tissue — an item almost impossible to find on store shelves — for distribution.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, those in need could find some solace among the friendly and helpful faces of the staff at St. Martin de Porres.
“We give them a few meals and that holds them over for the weekend,” A’Vant-Deishinni said.
“We’re working like a little village here. The numbers have been growing because the more people have been hearing that we’re giving out food and other things the more they come here.”
To help mothers and young children, the diocese moved its Gabriel Project Ministry from the chancery, which had closed in March, to St. Martin de Porres.
Gabriel Project Assistant Marissa Kelly and Seminarian Stephen Coutcher have been providing young families in need with diapers, baby wipes and any other supplies they have received thanks to the generosity of the faithful who have contributed to the parish and school Baby Showers that stock the cabinets of this vital ministry.
“People are so happy that they can get little things to help themselves, especially now, because many people are not working,” Kelly said.
She and Coutcher recalled the delight of one mother, who recently gave birth to her 12th child, who came in for assistance and received a layette that had been donated to the Gabriel Project.
“They make the decision to choose life so it’s the least that we can do,” Coutcher said.
The Gabriel Project, part of Director Carol Owens’ Office of Life and Family Ministry, has been a lifeline for many families, especially during this health crisis.
“We’re here to help. People know that we are here to help by helping their kids.
Altagracia has three children, ages 1, 5 and 15. On this day, her first visit to the center after hearing about it from a relative, she meets Kelly in the parking lot so that she does not have to go inside.
The Gabriel Project helps those children up to the age of 4, so the diapers will come in handy for her 1-year-old.
“This is going to help me a lot for my needs because of all the problems we are having now,” she says in Spanish, expressing her appreciation to Kelly for the support.
Back inside, A’Vant-Deishini recalled the story of a woman who did not receive her SNAP benefits and didn’t know how she was going to be able to feed her family.
She came to St. Martin de Porres after her social worker suggested the center as a resource.
“We were able to put a nice box together for her to take home,” she said. “When I found out she had small children, I made her an appointment with Marissa to come in for some baby things. It’s been a wonderful resource here for the community. When people leave they’re so happy and they know a little bit more about what we’re doing, then we’re able to serve more and more people.”
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