Bridging the Gap
The St. Edward's Food and Wellness Center in Providence is filling the need for a growing segment of Rhode Island's population: the working poor. For most of the last decade the ministry has provided food, clothing and medical care for thousands in the northern section of the city. Jim Hummel sits down with one of the founders to talk about the center's roots, and how the effort has grown over the past nine years.
The doors won't open for another 30 minutes, but already a crowd is gathering outside the St. Edward's Food and Wellness Center.
By the end of the day close to 300 families will pass through, getting food, health and beauty items, medical advice, and clothing.
Lori: ``Helping the community, reaching out and helping those in need.''
Lori Porcaro and her husband Felix began running the wellness center nine years ago this month. They are parishioners at St. Anthony's Church in North Providence. Father Edward Cardente who covers both St. Anthony's and St. Edward's on Branch Avenue in Providence had the vision for a place where the needs of the working poor would be met.
Lori: ``If someone became disabled, if someone lost their job, is someone was sick for a period of time, situations where families had to take in other family members, grandchildren, help support their families. And they just needed a little bit of help, Father Ed wanted a place for them to go where they would be treated with dignity and felt welcomed and were just able to make ends meet.''
And Father Ed thought it would be a perfect match for Lori and Felix.
Hummel: ``Did you feel that off the bat, or did it take a little bit of convincing?''
Lori: ``No, it took a little bit of convincing. At first hesitated; I did not want to refuse Father Ed by any means. I was honored and proud that he felt I was capable enough to do this, but my first reaction to him was: Father Ed I would love to help you with this but I know nothing about running a food pantry. He took my hand and just looked very gently in my eyes and said: We will learn together and God will lead us. And this is God's work and I have tremendous faith that you'd be able to do this.''
The first day they opened, 36 families showed up. A disappointed Lori - who had prepared for hundreds - remembers the words of one of the 50 volunteers on board that day.
Lori: ``If you helped one family you made a difference. He said you have to give everything time, families will come. Sure enough the next week it doubled, the next week it tripled and it just grew and it grew and it grew. And over the course of the first year we had close to 1,000 families that were registered with us.''
Lori credits those volunteers for keeping the operation running smoothly while she is out of town sometimes, traveling for her family's business.
The wellness center is different from a typical food pantry. Many of the clients, as they are called, have their own houses, transportation, and jobs. Families have to register and check in when they arrive. About a thousand families are currently registered.
Lori: ``Some people move on, they no longer need our services and they will step out of our registry and new clients will come in, so we have a constant circulation always since the beginning.''
And while no one is ever turned away, the ministry is aimed at those living in the northern section of Providence.
Lori: ``We did see in 2008 when the economy went bad an influx of people, a lot more emergencies, a lot more people coming from outside of our area. Fortunately we had enough food to help those people I wasn't ever in a position where I had to turn people away - my shelves were empty, I had to close the doors. I anything at that time we welcomed more people and took care of more families.''
Hummel: ``Have you ever had that concern? Have you ever run short?''
Lori: ``I haven't. I haven't that, that has not been a problem.''
Hummel: ``Did you worry about that in the early years?''
Lori: ``I worried about it in the beginning, when we first started because it seemed to be growing so quickly I wondered how we'd be able to maintain such a large ministry.''
The center, which opens on Wednesdays for two hours in the morning and two in evening, relies on monetary donations, but also receives clothing from parishioners and donations from some larger benefactors.
Lori: ``We have a parishioner, who likes to remain anonymous, that sends us every Tuesday bread and he usually sends about 8 to 10 racks, stacked about 12 shelves high of fresh break: rolls, English muffins, bagels. He also sends 10 cases of hot dogs single every week. Aside from that, he sends us chicken every few months, as needed I should say. Because whenever we run out he'll always ask: do you need chicken?''
The bulk of the food comes from the Rhode Island Community Food Bank. Lori purchases about 5000 pounds a week, at 10 cents a pound.
Then there's the clothing available downstairs.
Lori: ``Everything is placed out just like a little department store for the clients to come and actually shop. And what we do because we're nonprofit we ask for a donation for the clothing. So we'll ask for 50 cents or a $1. What we do is take the funds we raise from that clothing room and I replenish the food pantry with that money.''
And while the clients are the focus, Lori has another group in mind as the ministry grows.
Lori: ``I always feel a tremendous responsibility to the donors - if it wasn't for the donors without the donors the place couldn't really run and I always want to be sure that they have trust in me and Father Ed in what we're doing there at St. Edward's as well.''
In Providence, Jim Hummel, for The Rhode Island Spotlight.