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Spirit in Action

August ‘23 Be the Change: St. John’s/St. Ann’s Outreach Center
By Natalie Criscione

It is Wednesday, May 3rd, at 9:15am, and the St. John’s/St. Ann’s Outreach Center (SJ/SA) in Albany’s South End is coming to life. “In about 45 minutes, you’ll see people lining up for produce,” Franciscan Friar Father Sean O’Brien, the Director of the center tells me, adding, “that’s every Monday and Wednesday. The pantry is open today, too—it is open on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday—there will be people at both doors.” And then he adds, “Wednesdays are also the days we deliver to the homebound” and “the soup kitchen [or “side-door” as it was renamed for the pandemic “to-go” serving style] is Monday and Saturday.” Then he waves his arms to direct my attention to the people in the room, “we have amazing volunteers.”

With regular deliveries and pick-ups from the Food Bank and a daily need for unpacking, repackaging, and distributing food, volunteers truly fuel the system. “We got 1,700 pounds of produce today,” says Father Sean, “by this afternoon, it will all be gone.” I join the volunteers packing bags of produce and I understand why some of them, as Father Sean says, have “been here for a thousand years.” It’s that kind of energy!

Spirits are high and, as the doors open, the atmosphere is something he compares to the sitcom “Cheers,” where everyone’s known by name. There is often an air of humor and “funny camaraderie,” he tells me, and it is not uncommon to hear a client say “This is the best part of my day!”

Having served at SJ/SA throughout the pandemic, Father Sean and his team are now “in the process of strategic planning to prepare for inviting the guests to come back inside.” Such a task “entails more volunteers and assigned jobs (waiting, bussing, dishwashing, cleaning up, scheduling, etc); it gets a little complicated.” Plus, there are added security measures to consider. “We are being cautious,” he says. There is also a need to update the website and think about how to handle changed SNAP benefits. The answers are elusive and the problems of poverty are systemic, perplexing, and complex, yet “No one ever gets turned away from our place,” says Father Sean.

Yes, there is a lot to keep him awake at night, but there is even more to bring Father Sean daily from his home at Siena College, a distance of just over 8 miles, to SJ/SA in the heart of Albany’s South End. “I’m hoping that as we continue to move along, we will be able to create some more programs that will be able to lift some of the people up and break the cycle of poverty and dependence.”

During the month of August as you say “Yes” to the question “Would you like to round up to the nearest dollar?” you too are part of the change that Father Sean is seeking. If you are interested in how you may become more involved in SJ/SA, email  or call (518) 472-9091.

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