Serving our neighbors

Serving our neighborsPictured, from left, volunteers Bernita Cook and Pat Howe accept a donation from Gary’s Berries on Wednesday. (Photo by Wendy Post)

When New York’s shutdown began a little over two months ago, and as the pandemic dominated the news, many organizations ramped up their efforts to serve the community. Tioga County Rural Ministry (TCRM), headed by Sister Mary O’Brien, was one of those organizations.

“We’re here to serve the dear neighbor; they are animals, they are in Sudan; that’s what we are,” said Sister Mary. 

In Tioga County, and with doors shuddered at area businesses, schools closed, and a soaring unemployment rate throughout the county, Sister Mary, along with the organization’s volunteers, began planning for the unknown; they knew that the needs would skyrocket within the community.

Surprisingly, however, the demand up to this point has not been that spike that Sister Mary expected. For example, she explained, a May 1 food-giveaway prepared for 150, but only 62 families registered. The Southern Tier Food Bank give-away in April served about 300.

The reason for the low numbers was possibly due to the receipt of stimulus checks, and the Pandemic Unemployment Insurance that residents received. 

The other reason, however, is the pandemic itself; many did not want to leave their homes, or were having food delivered to them. In areas like Spencer, N.Y., Sister Mary said they saw an uptick in the need for assistance, making the needs as unpredictable as the virus itself.

What Rural Ministry has seen, however, is an increase in donations to their mission of serving the community. During the month of April, for example, donations increased by approximately $15,000 in comparison to the year prior.

Sister Mary told of an elderly couple that came to TCRM and generously donated their stimulus checks. 

“It’s people wanting to help other people,” said Sister Mary, adding, “That’s who we are in this county. People are so generous.”

On Wednesday, Nikki Schreiner donated a variety of pasta and low-sugar cereals from a fund created at Gary’s Berries, with TCRM selected as this year’s recipient.

With over 200 volunteers, and a limited staff, TCRM, during 2019, was able to build 20 wheelchair ramps, 46 families received a line of credit through the Farmer’s Market Initiative, 53 refurbished bikes were distributed, 11 camperships were sponsored by TCRM at Mapleridge Ranch; 64 families were served at an August food give-away, close to 40 teens benefited from the Back to School clothing program, 192 families received financial assistance, holiday food baskets were distributed during Thanksgiving and Christmas, 343 children received toys, and the annual Spring clean-up served 66 senior citizens in Owego and Apalachin.

Looking forward, Sister Mary understands that things are going to remain unknown for quite some time regarding the virus, and the needs.

With several grants in the works, Sister Mary is preparing to provide continued COVID relief. The grants will assist community members that have lost their jobs, lost their insurance.

“We will pay your bills,” said Sister Mary of the program. 

So far the COVID Relief program has received $16,000, and another $25,000 grant is being applied for. 

This is just one change that Sister Mary is anticipating. They had to cancel their Spring clean up for seniors this year because of the pandemic, and they have lost a few volunteers that have underlying conditions, making them vulnerable.

Protocols are also changing, and the way assistance is delivered. Today, those visiting the pantry must ring the doorbell, stand behind a line, and the volunteers then leave the food on a table. They are also delivering, and Sister Mary recently put out a call to area walkers.

“You put out the request, and people help,” exclaimed Sister Mary.

As far as summer programs, Sister Mary noted that with the recent retirement of Frank Wiles, from Our Green Acres, there will now be four farmers at the Walgreen’s (former Rite Aid) parking lot in Owego. She noted that TCRM will still be running the voucher program for families to utilize at the market. They are also looking towards the Back to School Program, and will need volunteers. 

In the meantime, lots of hand-sanitizer, gloves, and masks are keeping the staff and volunteers safe, allowing for them to continue serving. Another food give-away is also in the planning stages, with a date of Aug. 8 set. More information on this event will be published as it becomes available.

If you are in need of assistance, you can contact them at (607) 687-3021 or visit TCRM is located at 143 North Ave. in Owego.

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