It was a sunny and unseasonably warm Tuesday morning in early November when the latest line of customers formed outside St. Patrick’s Center in Wilmington.
The warm weather wouldn’t last. By the end of the month, low temperatures had dipped into the 20s.
A sanctuary for people in need since 1971, it was food on this day – and most days – that people needed and came to receive at St. Patrick’s Center.
St. Patrick’s is part food bank, soup kitchen, social services clearinghouse and just a place where needy people can get help. It’s the kind of help that fills a hungry belly and offers a pair of socks, warm jacket and just about any type of thing that makes life more bearable for some of the poorest of the poor. It was founded as a senior center shortly after the school at St. Patrick’s closed in 1970 and has evolved into a haven for the needy on the east side of the city.
On this day, workers and volunteers went about the business of helping people inside the center and in the parking lot outside. Peter Slattery, executive director, and colleagues had no shortage of work to do, helping people fill bags from a food bank line while directing others who were there for a hot meal. Breakfast is served five days a week.
Slattery joined St. Patrick’s earlier this year after spending eight years at Philabundance, an organization focused on providing emergency food to relieve hunger in five counties in Pennsylvania and four in New Jersey.
The effort to help the needy can be rewarding and frustrating at the same time.
“I guess that is an accurate description. I feel a calling to have my life work be about this work, so that’s fulfilling and rewarding, but you see both the good and the bad,” Slattery said. “You see people succeed and you see people fail and all you do is just keep plugging away it.”
That’s what we see on this autumn morning, workers and volunteers plugging away it, fixing meals, lining up people to go through the food bank, working with seniors, people helping people.
“I grew up in a food-insecure household,” Slattery said. “We would both volunteer at the soup kitchen, and eat at the soup kitchen, all in the same day.”
The breakfast program is one of several aimed at helping the poor. Others are a senior nutrition program, supplemental food for seniors, transportation for seniors and disabled, produce distribution, homeless respite services, clothing bank, social work and pharmacy services, recreational and educational services and an emergency grocery program.
At 107 E. 14th St., the center shares part of a city block with St. Patrick’s Church but is its own non-profit entity. The center accepts help from all directions.
“It’s a way to give back to the community,” said Joseph L. Yacyshyn, chairman of the board of the center the last two years. He has been a center volunteer for 10. “I raised two kids. We’ve never been hungry. This is a country that put a man on the moon, and it shouldn’t have people going to bed hungry and cold. We’re just there trying to help people.”
“If I lined up five volunteers, you’re going to get five different answers” about what keeps them going in helping the center.
Whatever the reason for people to donate their time and resources, Yacyshyn says helping the needy is not a partisan issue.
“It’s not about faith, it’s not about color, it’s not about politics. Leave all that out in the parking lot. We’re just here to help you. It’s all we do.”
He worries about poor people in January and February who are faced with utility bills and rent payments. They also must refill medications and put food on the table.
“How do you balance all that out?”
Slattery says the center get donations from across the spectrum and keeps away from partisanship.
“On some level, there’s a certain amount of Republicans who would rather individuals give, and Democrats would rather the government give,” Slattery said “We’re happy to take money from wherever it comes. Everybody wants the same objective. The situation that we have – we’re too wealthy as a nation for this. It’s a solvable problem. Somebody needs to be there to keep people from slipping through the cracks.”
“People’s methods might be a little different, but the objective is still the same.”
Yacyshyn said it is this is the time of year – “a 45-day window” – when people recognize the need to give. It’s later in winter, between mid-January and mid-March, when the crunch arrives, and people still need help.
“We need to take transactions and build them into relationships,” he said of the work they do with donors, people and businesses that care enough to help.
It isn’t any one factor that has contributed to the latest wave of poverty, Yacyshyn said.
“It’s the trifecta. It’s the economy. It’s the fact that we’re coming out of COVID and going into the flu. And we’ve got families where there is only one adult and they’re trying to raise kids and all that. It’s the perfect storm.”
With a vision of reducing poverty on Wilmington’s East Side, the center’s mission is to build community, address poverty and restore hope by meeting basic needs with respect and dignity.
“These things have been going on for a while,” Slattery says when asked if problems are worse now than ever. “There are acute crises, like right now things at the grocery store are really expensive and they’re going up faster than anybody’s wages are going up, so we’re trying to meet that acute crisis. And they’ll be another crisis next year.”
Joblessness, low wages, utility bills, health care and so many more issues make life difficult for people of little-to-no means. At St. Patrick’s, they cannot resolve all those problems in East Wilmington. What they can do is try to direct people to help that is available.
“We have the most impact with our social workers, we can help navigate a health problem with their insurance and stuff like that … get people from a point of crisis to a point of thriving,” Slattery said. “We can do that through social work. I can’t feed people their way out of poverty, but I can help them to get access to job training or things like that that will help them break that cycle of poverty and not have to rely on the system any more.”
Both Slattery and Yacyshyn know their work helps one community in one part of the city
“We’re addressing an unmet need in that community,” Yacyshyn said. “Without St. Patrick’s, I don’t know where they’d go.”
“Somebody has to be doing this work,” Slattery said. “People don’t usually volunteer and then feel worse for it afterwards.”
“The good stories outweigh the bad stories.”
HOW TO HELP: St. Patrick’s accepts donations of all kinds including food, clothing and cash. It also provides multiple volunteer opportunities. For more information, visit stpatrickscenter.org or phone 302-652-6219.