Answering the call to help people in need

An Aroostook County senior citizen’s refrigerator broke, resulting in her inability to make her rent payment. A woman Down East ran out of wood to heat her home. A family was unable to save enough money to pay for costly car repairs. They are all examples of people who turned to Catholic Charities Maine’s Relief & Hope Services for help.

With fuel and electricity costs going up so markedly, and then inflation causing increased prices of everything else on top of that, that just stretches people, especially if you’re on a fixed income,” says Deacon Frank Daggett, director of Catholic Charities Maine Parish Social Ministry (PSM).

“People are just living hand-to-mouth, and it doesn’t take hardly anything to put them over the edge,” says Chip Beckwith, a PSM outreach coordinator who serves northern Maine.

For the past 12 years, Relief & Hope Services, a division of PSM, has been helping people who find themselves in need of urgent assistance. In the past six months, there have been 800 calls from people seeking help.

“A lot of people who turn to us have never had to ask for help before, and suddenly, something happens. The breadwinner gets injured, or somebody gets COVID, or an emergency comes up, so they reach out to us,” says Deacon Daggett.

Among the biggest increases recently have been calls for rental assistance, now that pandemic-related programs have ended. Beckwith says in Aroostook County he has also seen a rise in calls to assist those who are homeless, including helping to find temporary shelter for people who have COVID-19 and can’t stay at a shelter.

Relief & Hope Services, which receives support from the annual Catholic Appeal, is designed to give people small amounts of money to help them with an immediate need, but Deacon Daggett says financial assistance isn’t the only way the program can help someone.

“We can, first of all, help people reprioritize because they have a whole list of things, and they don’t know what they’re going to do next. So, we can talk with them and set priorities, but then, we can also direct them to other resources, so they can get back on their feet,” he says.

Relief & Hope Services seeks to partner with parishes around the state as well as community agencies. When calls come in, they are often directed to outreach coordinators who serve in different areas. In addition to Beckwith in Aroostook County, Edward French handles cases out of an office in Brewer, Bill Wood covers an area from Fryeburg to the Midcoast, and Deacon Daggett, assisted by Susan McGaulley and volunteer Julie Abbott, handles cases in southern Maine.

“We started statewide from day one, but we really wanted to localize it with having some staff who know the local resources in the area,” says Michael Smith, chief program officer for Catholic Charities Maine. “It’s nice to have those relationships. Chip or Ed, for example, are able to go to meetings with community partners, or with the parishes, or whomever, which helps to create some synergies.”

Teamwork is important because a person may be able to receive additional assistance as a result or, in some cases, it may prevent redundancy.

While Relief & Hope Services has expanded its outreach through the years, so, too, have parishes. PSM has been able to help several parishes start or enhance programs, including training volunteers or staff.

“It’s not only our own outreach, but the growth within the parishes as well to, together, create a bigger network around the state,” says Smith. “We all have a responsibility to help people in need, so we’re trying to be the conduit and provide resources, so our parishes can do it on a local level.”

It is not possible for Relief & Hope Services to provide financial assistance to everyone who calls, but what staff and volunteers will always try to do is to treat those who call with respect and compassion.

“We’re always going to respond to someone by saying, ‘Let’s problem solve. Let’s talk it through.’ Let’s at least let someone share their story and where they are in life,” says Smith. “The need is always going to be greater than we have the financial capacity for, but having that compassionate, listening ear, I think, is huge.”

Read a related story about longtime volunteer Julie Abbott.