by PATRICK J. BUECHI
Fri, Feb 1st 2019 03:00 pm
Sister Johnice speaks to fourth grade students at Notre dame Academy in South Buffalo about the importance of giving and helping others. The students presented Sister Johnice with box of money they raised through their good deeds. The money will help fund meals at the Response to Love Center.
(Dan Cappellazzo/Staff photographer)
This year marks 35 years since Response to Love opened its doors to serve the hungry of Buffalo's East Side. Over the years, the center has expanded to meet the growing needs of the area. A thrift store, education classes and a Veterans program have been added. Thus, opening doors to a better life for those who come to the center.
Sister M. Johnice Rzadkiewicz, CSSF, foundress and executive director of the center, uses the image of doors to explain how she has grown the social service center, located at 130 Kosciuszko St., to a multifaceted social service center that serves over 60,000 meals a year.
"It isn't something we choose to do, but the doors open before us," she explained. "We're able to say yes, or we're able to just move on the way we were. We can't be what we were before. We have to grow because the needs are there. The one thing we don't want to do is become stagnant. If you become stagnant, it becomes routine, and God is not in routine. God is in newness. That's why we believe God is in what we do."
Sister Johnice stands barely 5 feet tall, but she is in charge of a huge operation. She answers every question in a well thought out manner from her heart.
The roots of the center come from Mother Teresa, who Sister Johnice met during the summer of 1985 while studying at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia. She asked the Missionaries of Charity foundress who had dedicated herself to helping the poor in Calcutta, India, if she could learn by her side.
"She just looked at me and smiled and said, 'No. Sister, you go back to your East Side community and find your own Calcutta.' I was stunned," Sister Johnice said. "That wasn't the answer I wanted to hear. My reply was, 'I can do that, but where do I start? How do I begin?' She said, 'People will come to you, but you need to look in their eyes and find Jesus. Those are the poor who will come your way."
Sister Johnice found that Buffalo had its own starving population - starving for food and starving for faith. And yes, they did come to her. But first, she came to them. After choosing the former St. Adalbert School for her food pantry and gathering volunteers, she found she had no means to acquire the needed food. After weeks of prayer, help came to her in the form of leftover food from the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center. Without a place to store the food, she gave it away door to door. What was left was given to the Buffalo Food Bank, which began a steady, healthy relationship. The pantry now offers food sensitive to the needs of the immigrant neighborhood. A dining room serves hot and healthy lunches four days a week.
A thrift store was later added, offering gently worn clothing and shoes as well as housewares and furniture. Anyone who enters the center can have a needs assessment to formulate an individualized plan of service.
More recently, the center has welcomed immigrants from nine different countries, offering them English as a Second Language classes. Once they know English, they can enter the Test Assessing Secondary Completion program to earn a high school diploma. With that diploma, they can get a job, then become a U.S. citizen.
"They're coming because they're hungry for education and for starting a new way of life. We provide for them the education. Some come with no knowledge of the English language at all. Some have a little bit taste of the language," Sister Johnice said. "It opens up a whole new avenue of dreams for them, because they're coming from a poor country, they're coming from a persecuted country, then all of a sudden a new world opens up for them."
They can come to the center and pick up food from the pantry, learn about job opportunities, social services and health care, which could be an unfamiliar concept for some.
"All these are part of basic needs for people and that's what we really provide for," explained Sister Johnice.
Education classes, computer classes and ESL classes began nearly 15 years ago in partnership with Erie County and Buffalo Public Schools. One of the center's four floors is dedicated to education.
The most recent program added helps those who have already helped others through military service. The AMVETS Training Center provides a full-range of career services, including career assessments, training, licensing and certification assistance with job searches. The program is staffed by members of AMVETS Post 24 and supervised by the National Headquarters for AMVETS.
The aid they offer takes care of basic needs, but the care they give handles basic dignity. When an abundance of suit coats came in, Debbie, who runs the Vets program, was able to provide a suit for a deceased vet who did not have one, and was to be buried in sweats.
"The tender touches that we provide for people are so important," Sister Johnice said.
Sister Johnice's role has changed in recent years. She allows the 160 volunteers to run the programs, while she spends time following the Felician charism of providing compassionate service and total availability to the clients of Response to Love.
"Before, my hands were on all the departments. I was in the thrift shop. I was in the dining room. I was in the food pantry," she said. "Now, I have capable people who are department heads who coordinate the various services, which frees me to sit in this office and meet one-on-one with people who come here to listen to what their needs are, to listen to their stories, and to give them hope for the future. That's how my role has shifted from service to listening to people. (Sharing their stories) is freeing and it's a healing."
She gives each client a little wooden cross. She calls it a comfort cross, and tells them to hold it in their hands. "When you feel discouraged, when you feel sad, hold the cross in your hand and it brings about the presence of Jesus giving you the comfort you need in the days that are ahead."
Sister Johnice has seen many people go through conversion experiences from these meetings. People have come for spiritual direction. They call the center "the church" and learn to pray there.
"They're searching for God, and God is present in their lives by coming and meeting, they take that extra step and they begin to find Him in a very deep spiritual way within their lives," Sister Johnice explained. "They go through a conversion experience that changes them, where they reach out to other people who are in need. They are able to find God in a new way and discover him every day in the present moment. I feel this is a beautiful response of what the Church is doing for people. We need to be there, one on one with people to learn who they are, to teach them, and to show them the direction so that they can bond more closely with God."
Staff and volunteers must be open to the Holy Spirit as they never know who God will send their way. "He always presents opportunities where we can say yes or we can close the door. I choose to say yes and go through that door. Oftentimes, it is a challenge, a challenge because you don't know the words to say to someone. You don't know the answer to give to someone, but you journey with them as a supportive presence, and you know God had led you with that person to speak and give them direction in their life."
The Response to Love Center will have an open house on March 31, to show the loyal donors the results of their contributions. On June 5, the annual fundraising gala will be held at the Millennium Hotel in Cheektowaga. Money raised from ticket sales and basket raffles will go to support the building.
For more information about the Response to Love Center, visit responsetolove.org.