By Alice Kenny
One, sometimes two brick buildings stand lonely sentry amid rubble and rats in block after Newburgh city block. Once home to the first Edison plant and the first city to be electrified, this Hudson River community an hour north of Manhattan is now distinguished by gangs and drug-infested violence.
Factories shuttered decades ago. Rioters frustrated by poverty shattered store windows and burned down buildings. Those who could fled with what they had left.
But in 1983 a group of nuns–Sisters Monica McGloin and Margaret Kilpatrick of the Dominican Sisters of Hope, Monica Galligan and Suzanne LaChapele of the Little Sisters of the Assumption and Irene Freely of the Franciscan Sisters of Peace – put on work clothes, pitched their tent with the poor and founded Newburgh Ministries, an affiliate of Catholic Charities.
Theirs is far from a happily-ever-after story.
“The unemployment rate among this largely Hispanic and black young male population sticks stubbornly at nearly 50 percent,” says the Ministry’s Executive Director Colin Jarvis. “The only jobs seem those born of poverty –police, welfare workers and teachers– almost all of whom commute in from somewhere, anywhere other than Newburgh.”
But the sisters and staff are not giving up. They listen to their new neighbors, march with them down dusty streets lined with buildings ready to be condemned and join in restoring their community.
Newburgh Ministries, housed first in a storefront and later in a former sewing machine factory, began small. There the homeless, the confused and those with nowhere else to go are still welcomed as guests. They drop by to sip warm coffee, make free phone calls searching for work and receive comfort. They shop at a thrift store where shirts, slacks and dresses are “sold” for dimes and dollars, prices they can afford to pay with dignity. And they let their children build castles from blocks in a playroom safe from bullets outside.
The ministry added “Winterhaven,” a shelter so visitors no longer had to huddle over night in abandoned buildings. And they teamed with St. Mary’s College and doctors from Christ Health Care to offer a free health clinic where no insurance is needed.
“The goal, however, is not to soften the blows of poverty,” says Mr. Jarvis as folks stop by his office to say hi, “but rather to empower people to transform a community.”
So Newburgh Ministries added Project Jumpstart, a language and tutoring program that keeps youngsters from falling through education’s cracks.
And perhaps, most important, they are building micro businesses.
More than a dozen women, all minority and most unable to speak English, sit at a kitchen table on the Ministry’s second floor, weaving glass beads into earrings, necklaces and bracelets. Their wares are documented, sold at craft fairs and turned into income for these newly minted jewelers.
Now, with help from a volunteer chef, Newburgh Ministry is kicking off “Baked Goods from the Hood” where local men and women will learn to bake, market and run an industry.
“We’re not looking for the government to solve people’s problems,” Mr. Jarvis says. “People solve people’s problems.”