By Berta Mexidor
JACKSON – Catholic Extension, in collaboration with several organizations, has launched the program, Sisters on the Frontlines, to help families impacted by COVID-19 and at the same time ”recognize the vital role of Catholic sisters in communities where needs are great.” The goal of the initiative is to give 1,000 sisters, $1,000 each to provide rapid response to the poor and distressed.
Five sisters in the Diocese of Jackson have received the Sisters on the Frontlines grant, so far: Sister Lael Niblick and Sister Mary Christine Fellerhoff from St. Helen Amory; Sister Nancy Schreck in Excel in Okolona; and Sisters Maria Eugenia Moreno, MGSpS and Obdulia Olivar, MGSpS in St. Michael, Forest.
Excel in Okolona
Excel – a nonprofit organization in the area is the center for the sisters to help, explained Sister Nancy Schreck. There are five sisters from three different religious congregations working in Okolona. The regular outreach includes after school and summer learning, adult basic education, english language learning, a senior center, a resale store and a variety of other programs for community needs. “This provides our ability to know the community and for people to know Excel and to come with their needs. What we do is different from a traditional parish. These Excel’s programs provide us with good knowledge of the community needs,” Sister Nancy said. Due to COVID-19, all the programs have concentrated on providing material and emotional assistance to people living on the edge of poverty, immigrant families in the area who do not qualify for public assistance, families with school-age children and especially the elderly.
Food insecurity has been a major issue for the community. With COVID-19, “food scarcity became an issue to be addressed,” said Sister Nancy. “The assistance we at Excel get is uneven, sometimes people bring meat, at another time it has been dairy products from Prairie Farms in Tupelo, some funds from United Way, and Create, the grant from the Extension Society, and so forth.”
St. Helen Parish Amory
The grant from Sisters on the Frontlines was used to help families affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, “…not because they themselves had COVID, but because their lives were changed by the pandemic,” said Sister Mary Christine Fellerhoff, CSA, the executive director of CHANGE in Amory. The organization is a community-wide, ecumenical nonprofit located in the parish center of St. Helen Parish in Amory, providing financial assistance since 2014 to families living in poverty.
Sister Mary said that CHANGE closed their operations around March due to the COVID-19 outbreak and reopened again in June, taking all the hygiene and social distance measures for the safety of staff and clients. “For me as a religious sister, COVID-19 has intensified the feelings I always experience when ministering to our clients. We share their suffering, their frustrations, their tears, and, yes, their small triumphs,” Sister Mary explained.
Sister Lael Niblick, CSA, lay ecclesial minister of St. Helen Amory says, “I feel both blessed and challenged in assisting our members to grow as disciples of Christ and to build a strong Christian community.” Along with Sister Mary of CHANGE, Sister Lael also received the Sisters on the Frontline grant.
As for the pandemic, she says her ministry has been impacted, with a few of the parish members have been diagnosed positive, a couple of them in a nursing home and two asymptomatic cases in a family. To impact her ministry further, Sister Lael was in a serious car accident at the end of July, putting her physically unable to help others, relying on other parishioners to aid her in continuing her mission to help others in need.
“Nevertheless, we have aged and ill members, several with cancer diagnoses. I am saddened by my inability to visit and take Eucharist to our homebound on a regular basis. Although we have opened the church to Mass on a restricted basis (masking, social distancing, and sanitizing), we feel deeply the fact that we cannot come together as a church community,” said Sister Lael.
Stories are bountiful from Sisters Mary and Lael on how they were able to help others with the Sisters on the Frontline grant. Here are a few of those stories (names have been changed for privacy):
- “Sally” lost her job due to budget cuts from COVID-19, she was in the process of seeking a divorce from her abusive husband, with three children. Sister Mary was able to help her with an electric bill to help keep her family in their home.
- “Sasha” lost her job when the pandemic struck. The restaurant where she worked let her go because she was pregnant and felt she was at a greater risk to catch the coronavirus. Normally able to manage, her income was drastically reduced, even with unemployment, government aid and SNAP benefits. The grant was able to assist her with a utility bill when funds were unavailable through CHANGE to help.
- “Annie” broke her hip and after a successful surgery, entered a nursing rehab facility as the pandemic struck. She had to quarantine for weeks before therapy was possible. “Annie” learned that she would need a ramp built on her home before she could be released from the facility, but being on a fixed income, she had no extra funds for the project. With the help of the grant and a generous donation of labor from a contractor), CHANGE was able to assist in building a ramp for “Annie” to continue her recovery at home.
Neither COVID-19 or a bad car accident stopped Sister Lael in her optimism. “This difficult situation calls forth creativity. We are developing ways to connect with our members in a variety of ways through social media, technology, and the written word,” she said. “Thank you FADICA and the Extension Society for the Sisters on the Frontlines grant enabling us to make Annie’s homecoming a joyous one.”
Sister Mary concluded saying “We feel blessed to share these clients’ stories, their tears and their gratitude. We are privileged to serve them.”
All the recipients of the Catholic Extension grant agree and share these challenges: trying to find a new way of delivering programs and create socialization this time with heavy safety measures and social distance. Sister Nancy expressed her gratitude for the ”flexibility of the Extension Grant. [It] has been very helpful in this regard.”
Since the program began in June, more than 378 sisters have received support from the Sisters on the Frontline grant program and another 622 have requested funds.
Sisters who have received funding are asked to report back to Catholic Extension as to how the funds were used. Catholic Extension will be sharing the sisters’ stories as they are received. To learn more or to donate, visit https://www.catholicextension.org/sisters-on-the-frontlines/.