Story by SHANNON PHILPOTT-SANDERS
The mood was joyous as seniors joined in song, played bingo and ate a meal served by youth volunteers from St. Nicholas Parish in O’Fallon July 28 at the Clyde C. Jordan Senior Center. Local seniors participated in the annual senior picnic sponsored by Catholic Urban Programs at the center, which also serves as a cooling center for East St. Louis residents, on one of the rare cool days in July. However, with the earlier heat spells of the summer, diocesan organizations have been scrambling to provide comfort and life-saving resources for the homeless and individuals without air conditioning in their homes.
According to Gerry Hasenstab, executive director of Catholic Urban Programs, the agency has distributed more than $11,000 in hotel vouchers just in the Belleville area this summer. “Other areas have totaled approximately $7,000,” said Hasenstab. “The financial need is dire.”
In some cases, motels were full, leaving people without a cool place to rest. In response to the heat, Ameren donated 25 air conditioner window units and Catholic Urban Programs distributed an additional 23 units purchased or donated, said Hasenstab, while also passing out water and Gatorade onsite and at local shelters.
“It is a life-saving effort because many people are living on the street,” said Hasenstab. “In this prolonged heat, they could die.”
Catholic Urban Programs has provided services to communities in the Belleville diocese since 1973, and is one of the 14 ministries benefiting in part from The Catholic Service and Ministry Appeal. The organization has helped meet the needs of the poor in East St. Louis, alongside programs such as the Neighborhood Law Office, Holy Angels Shelter, Hubbard House and the Griffin Center.
Daystar Ministries in Cairo, another outreach agency funded in part from the diocese’s ministry appeal, has also seen an increase in those needing assistance, said director Sherry Miller. “Many people are not only trying to find air conditioning, but also a place to live,” she said. “We’re trying to do positive things, but the most important things we need include food, prayers and donations.”
Miller said local parishes have donated casseroles and water to distribute to the homeless. The diocesan organization also hosts a mobile food pantry the last Wednesday of the month. “People are always looking for us,” she said.
Daystar operates a food pantry, soup kitchen and Madeline’s Mart Thrift Store in addition to the mobile food pantries. The program provides those in need with financial assistance, transportation, home repairs and home health and advocacy services. “God is walking right beside us,” said Miller. “We’re just trying to do God’s work.”