Open eyes and open hearts

Catholic Community Services staff and parish volunteers distribute food boxes in Aberdeen. Photo: Courtesy Catholic Community Services Catholic Community Services staff and parish volunteers distribute food boxes in Aberdeen. Photo: Courtesy Catholic Community Services

Driving a refrigerated rental truck to far-flung places like Forks isn’t exactly in Nick Leider’s job description.

But as a network builder for Catholic Community Services of Western Washington, partnering with parishes to serve the poor in their communities, Leider steps in where needed. And when COVID-19 arrived, one thing that meant was helping coordinate delivery and distribution of food through the federal “Farmers to Families” program.

When the federal contractor wasn’t able to deliver to Forks or Whidbey Island, Leider came up with the idea of renting a truck, relying on prior experience to drive it himself. It was a definite departure from the work Leider has been doing with parishes in CCS’ Southwest Region — such as discussing the immigration situation and how to address homelessness.

“The kinds of things we’re doing now are different than we imagined, but they’re with the people,” Leider said recently. “In so many ways, all of our eyes were opened up to need that wasn’t there before — or need that was there before and we weren’t seeing.”

When the pandemic hit, CCS and Catholic Housing Service employees in all program areas — from home care and emergency shelters to substance abuse recovery and supportive housing — successfully figured out ways to continue serving those in need.

For the five CCS network builders, their response to the pandemic built on relationships with priests and parishes developed during the past three years through the CCS Catholic Collaboration for Poor Families and Communities, said Erin Maguire, the network builder for King County.

The crisis also allowed them to forge relationships with parishes in areas they hadn’t worked in before, she said. “If we did not have Mary [Wahl], Jose [Ortiz], Nick and Isabel [Cisneros Rueda], I think a lot of opportunities would have been missed.”


CCS network builder Nick Leider talks with Susan Walker of St. Hubert Parish on Whidbey Island. Photo: Courtesy Catholic Community Services

An expression of God's love

During the pandemic, the network builders distributed thousands of boxes of fresh produce, protein and dairy products at parishes around the archdiocese, working under a contract with Pacific Coast Fruit in Kent to get the food directly to people in need.

They partnered with parishes from Burlington to Aberdeen and beyond to arrange drive-up distribution events. Parishes gathered volunteers to help with things like loading boxes into each vehicle that drove up.

Through September, the network builders worked with 25 parishes, nine CCS/CHS programs and 12 community organizations to serve more than 52,500 families with 981 tons of fresh food. (Earlier in the pandemic, they helped distribute food from Catholic Charities USA to 17 CCS/CHS locations.)

Leider said it has been inspiring to see parish volunteers, including youth groups and kids, helping those in need at the drive-up distribution events.

“When somebody puts a box in the trunk of the car and the person inside is sort of tearful and mouths ‘Thank you’ … it’s an expression of God’s love that’s happening right there,” he said. It’s a “sacramental experience, even if it’s not the formal inside-the-church-building stuff.”

Those moments have given him “hope and energy and faith,” Leider said, “being able to send the message to the wider community about what Catholics believe without using so many words.”

Bringing food to the doorstep

In Forks, a town of 3,800 on the Olympic Peninsula, the parishioners at St. Anne Parish were instrumental in leading the network builders to families who needed food. Father Showreelu Simham, St. Anne’s parochial vicar, said many families in the community have immigration issues and are reluctant to go to the local food bank; some have to walk to the grocery store, carrying their children.

So the food was taken directly to trailer parks and apartment buildings where Hispanic families live, said Cisneros, the network builder for Latino communities in the Southwest Region. Accompanied by St. Anne’s volunteers and Father Simham, she and Leider knocked on every door, offering food to all. At one home, the woman who answered the door was crying, Father Simham recalled. “She said, ‘I was praying to God that God will send the angels to help us, and you are here.’”

The network builders made food stops in other small communities on the peninsula, including Westport, Amanda Park and Humptulips, and delivered food to residences in Woodland and Shelton, where connections with parishes were crucial in finding those in need. They also distributed donated cloth masks to workers at a shake mill in Humptulips, a blueberry farm in Mossyrock, a nursery in Elma and seafood packing companies in South Bend.

“I am grateful I’m in a position where I can serve,” said Cisneros, who is based in Aberdeen. “It’s been very difficult because the need is big and what we can do is small.”


CCS network builder Erin Maguire distributes diapers for Snohomish County families. Photo: Courtesy Catholic Community Services

Helping parishioners respond

At St. Hubert on Whidbey Island, parishioners were feeling “like they couldn’t do anything to help anyone” because of COVID, said Susan Walker, St. Hubert’s pastoral administrator. Enter the network builders, who collaborated with St. Hubert’s to provide much-needed outreach to its community.

For four days, Leider made the long drive (including a ferry crossing) from Tacoma to St. Hubert’s with the refrigerated truck, accompanied by Wahl, the Northwest Region network builder, who packed food boxes into her SUV.

“They were so incredibly involved and helpful and really helped make it happen for us,” Walker said. Volunteers helped distribute 1,400 boxes to numerous agencies on the island. “It was an amazing endeavor,” said Father Rick Spicer, St. Hubert’s pastor.

Also in the Northwest Region, Ortiz, the network builder for Latino/farmworker communities, was busy advocating for masks and personal protective equipment for farmworkers and reduced capacity in farmworker bunk rooms to increase safety, while also dropping off food for those in need.

Maguire said responding to the pandemic made her realize the ability of the church to provide outreach wherever needed. “Nobody else had a footprint in every single community in the state,” Maguire said. She remembers thinking, “Wow, we are really big.”

What the network builders have learned and experienced during the pandemic will inform their ministry going forward.

“Our eyes and hearts were opened to more families and communities,” Maguire said. “That’s where I’m hoping we can go."

APPEAL FOR THE POOR

Catholic Community Services opened its doors during the 1918 flu pandemic and has continually kept them open to help those in need. Now, more than 100 years later, CCS and Catholic Housing Services are providing essential services for people impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. You can help by donating at cccsww.org/donatenow.

Jean Parietti

Jean Parietti is the local news editor for NWCatholic.org and features editor for Northwest Catholic magazine. You can reach her at [email protected].
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Jean Parietti es editora local para el sitio web NWCatholic.org y destacada editora de la revista Noroeste Católico/Northwest Catholic. Pueden contactarle en: [email protected].