Article and photo by Sarah Thompson, Director of Communications & Volunteer Mobilization
For more than 30 years, St. Monica's Episcopal Church in Hartford's North End has been helping meet the basic needs of thousands of people who have come through their doors.
What first began as a food pantry expanded into a soup kitchen, and Patricia Nelson has been leading the charge for more than two decades.
“My ministry has always been a ministry of helping people,” she explained. “I was a teacher and then I became a school guidance counselor, so it’s always been about helping. And so, this was just natural for me to do this. I’m a people person and I like interacting and helping people wherever I can - physically, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally.”
And helping she does. Along with a dedicated team of volunteers, Nelson has been a ray of hope for people for many years. While some who visit the pantry are facing extreme poverty, others are working but simply can’t meet all of their needs. Many learn about it from neighbors or friends.
“We have had people who have lost their jobs and temporarily need help,” she said. “For those who feel embarrassed, we explain that this is their time for us to reach out and help them. Then, hopefully they will get back on their feet. That’s why we are here.”
While people come to St. Monica’s for the immediate need for food, they quickly learn that there is much more to be offered, including community, support, and if desired, prayer.
“We’ve had people ask us to pray for them and I take it seriously. I write their names down and I take it to God in prayer,” shared Nelson. “And when we pray with someone, we give them information they need to help their situation. The idea is that they know we are here for them. We’re remembering them.”
In fact, Nelson places a high value on holistically meeting the needs of the people who she interacts with each week at the food pantry and soup kitchen.
By participating in Urban Alliance’s Beyond the Basics initiative, which helps churches and ministry organizations reach and serve people who are lacking food, clothing or housing so that they meet their basic needs and gain greater stability in their lives, St. Monica’s has received support to strengthen and expand their services.
“I’ve always wanted to do more than just give food,” she shared. “Yes, giving food is important but people have other needs, too. What I’m extremely pleased and delighted and grateful for is the fact that we now have this partnership with Urban Alliance,” said Nelson.
With a desire to expand their services by bringing the aspect of healthy eating and healthy lifestyles to the people they serve, St. Monica’s was able to offer a cooking class.
“My goal has always been to focus on healthy eating and healthy lifestyles. And now, we’ve been able to do that,” she said. “We have done a workshop about shopping effectively and reading labels, and we did a healthy cooking class. We had a great turnout and the people really enjoyed it. They cooked a meatless skillet lasagna. As a result of a grant we received from Urban Alliance we were able to buy all the ingredients and they were able to take the groceries home and cook it themselves. They were so happy.”
But, their efforts haven’t stopped there.
Stephanie Solomon-Williams has stepped into the role of a community resource coach for the clients at the St. Monica's basic needs program, backed with support from Urban Alliance through specialized training, consultation, grant funding, facilitated professional support meetings, and tool kits of printed materials.
As a community resource coach, she’s able to help connect the people their program serves with further support so they may gain greater life stability.
“A lot of people in the community don’t know these services exist to help them when they need the help,” explained Solomon-Williams. “We try to connect them to the services within the city. There are places like the job center right across the street from us, Goodwill, and other places that they can use to improve their lives in the moment. Sometimes people don’t understand that they have to do a little legwork, but when they do, they start to see progress. That’s the piece that we bring to it.”
For her client Nicola Halladene, Stephanie’s coaching has been instrumental.
“I moved here from New York and I went to the job center because when I came to Hartford I didn’t have a job,” shared Halladene. “When I crossed the road for the bus I saw the sign for the pantry, and then I met Stephanie.”
Over the course of nine months, Solomon-Williams met with Halladene to set goals, check in on progress, and help her connect to the resources needed for her to achieve her goals.
“She’s been a really great friend,” said Halladene. “It’s just me and the kids, and it’s really hard when you can’t call on anybody and people are not really in the position to help you if you do need it. Stephanie gave me some forms and some places I could call, and then I got a part-time job. It’s a start, because at least something is coming in. I was able to get my driver’s license and then I was even able to save enough money for a car. When I got the car, I brought it to the church to show Stephanie and we even took a picture. And now, I’m trying to find a full-time job.”
“She was a rock star. She did really good,” shared Solomon-Williams.
Stephanie knows first-hand what a difference a little encouragement can make.
“I went back to school when I was older, and I had a friend at the time that helped me,” she shared. “Adding school to my plate was hard, but it was worth it. Having someone to share it with was even more worth it because when someone reaffirms everything that you want to do with your life, you feel good. For some people, the reward is that someone believes in them. When you tell someone they are doing a great job, light bulbs go off. Then they do the next thing, and the next thing. When someone tells you that you did great, and just listen, it makes a difference.”
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