Refugee Outreach Ministry
In August 2016, a family of refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo was legally resettled in St. Petersburg and they soon registered in our parish. After escaping the Congo, where there has been a civil war, they lived in a refugee camp for several years before being vetted and allowed to come to the US. The family included a mother, father and five children ages newborn to 8. They soon welcomed a sixth child! They are practicing Catholics, attend Mass at our parish each weekend, and all of the children are baptized and the older children are participating in our Faith Formation program.
Since then, many more refugees, about 100 in all, of many different faiths, have also come to the Saint Petersburg area. The outreach efforts at Saint Mary Our Lady of Grace have become an interfaith ministry of mercy and justice. We partner with Daystar Life Center to provide for immediate needs and to help our friends work toward self-sufficiency.
Although they have received many services through the State Department, Daystar, and their assigned resettlement agency (Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services - GCJFCS - is coordinating their cases), the families have many needs. A typical family has to pay rent of over$900 per month, utilities, food and transportation. New arrivals do not have a car, but rely on the bus and bicycles. In the past six years, many parishioners, young and old, have offered hands-on assistance to the refugees. This has included providing transportation, fundraising for special needs, assistance with doctor appointments, translation, welcome kits, tutoring, assistance navigating social services such as DCF for food stamps, and much more. One of our parishioners even assisted at the labor and delivery of a baby! In return, we have been blessed to become friends, godparents and teachers of these people.
We are proud to announce that Apalale and his family were naturalized as US Citizens in July 2021.
Sew Much Hope Project
In 2017, one of our parishioner, Janet Meyer, and her adult daughter, Courtney Erickson, committed to starting Sew Much Hope Project (SMHP) with the goal of helping refugee women learn sewing skills so they can supplement the family's income. SMHP flourished, and soon also offered quality science and art educational activities supervised by certified teachers for the children of these women under the direction of Shannon Lipan of The Wonder Studio. In 2021, the social enterprise, Sew Much Hope Project, LLC, decded to formally merge with a similar organization known as RAMWI - Refugee and Migrant Women's Initiative. RAMWi is a non profit, and the merger benefits both parties.
The women of SMHP are helping to support their families by making and selling purses, upcycled necktie necklaces, and more. At the Localtopia market in 2020, they sold $3000 of goods! They maintain a website for online sales, which became important during the 2020 COVID pandemic.
For our service to these refugees, Saint Mary's has received two recognition awards from GCJFCS: The Human Spirit Award and the Community Partner Appreciation Award. As a community partner, we offer assistance in line with our beliefs in the dignity of every human person, and in the spirit of solidarity. We have also received three CRS Mini Grants from our diocese, each for $1000: one in 2017, 2018 and one in 2019. Please read more about our Mini Grant success story, Uwera, below.
Some of the community volunteers and organizations who assist with SMHP include members of Pass-A-Grille Community Church, Interfaith Tampa Bay, The Wonder Studio, Delta Kappa Gamma, Babycycle Diaper Bank, Clothes to Kids, and countless volunteers from various other places in our community. We are proud to say that the founders of Sew Much Hope Project, Janet and Courtney, have been recognized by another local church, Trinity Lutheran, as recipients of the 2018 Bold Women Award! Our refugee outreach has become an interfaith and whole community effort, and we are very blessed to be a part of it.
What Can You Do?
Saint Mary's parishioners are pooling their time, talent and treasure to assist our local refugees. All our cash donations are handled through Daystar Life Center, and we use these cash reserves for emergencies. For example, when a family wage-earner suffers an accident or has lost work due to COVID, we can help them pay the rent until they get back on their feet. We can also assist with food, clothing, utility bills and more through Daystar. If you make a donation for our refugees through Daystar, be sure to indicate "Refugee Fund" on your check.
In late 2021, as SMHP merges with RAMWI, we hope to initiate a monthly Wellness Support Group for refugee women who are in the US five years or less. This component of the Refugee outreach will again be a collaboration between volunteers at Saint Mary OLG and other community members. If you are free one Saturday morning a month, let us know - we can use some helping hands.
Any adult who wishes to help in our Refugee Outreach and have direct contact with this population through our church must be safe environment trained and pass a Level 2 background screening. Drivers must also complete a driving background check. Let us know if you would like to help!
CRS Mini Grant 2018
"Catholic Relief Services is the official international humanitarian agency of the U.S. Catholic community. CRS alleviates suffering and provides assistance to people in need in more than 90 countries without regard to race, religion or nationality."
Saint Mary Our Lady of Grace has been the recipient of the Catholic Relief Services Mini Grant for three consecutive years. The $1000 we received goes directly to support the Sew Much Hope Project (SMHP) that teaches refugee women sewing skills. We are very proud to give you an update on the progress of one of our most successful participants in SMHP, Uwera Nizeyimana.
When Uwera came to Sew Much Hope Project for the first time in December 2017, she had never used a sewing machine before. By the end of her first sewing class, she declared "I LIKE this!" with a huge smile on her face and a finished project in her hands. Uwera continued to attend SMHP meetings once a month, and when given the opportunity to sew more often, she immediately accepted. Through SMHP, Uwera and 3 other refugee women were recommended for a more intensive sewing class called Sewn Together offered by the local nonprofit, Answered Prayers Project, which focuses on economic empowerment. After completing the Sewn Together course, Uwera was hired by Answered Prayers Project as an independent contractor to accept piece work for the organization's social enterprise. Uwera started sewing decor pillows and wine bags once a week, and also occasionally made bowties for a local fashion label called Sewn Apart. Then, Answered Prayers Project received a large contract from Spirit FM to make 1500 swag bags for their annual Women's Expo, and Uwera has sewn a significant number of those 1500 bags. By the nature of contract work, her monthly income will vary, but now Uwera has the means to assist her family with additional income. Uwera sews for Answered Prayers Project on a part time basis, on her own schedule while her children are in school. When she graduated from Sewn Together, Uwera received a brand new sewing machine from Answered Prayers Project, and says that having her own machine at home helps her save money because she can repair her children's' clothing. With her flexible job schedule, she is still able to continue with English classes at Tomlinson Adult Learning Center, which she makes a priority as she works toward self-sufficiency in her community in Saint Petersburg, Florida.
Uwera continues to sew at Sew Much Hope Project. She helps the women around her, and is emerging as a natural leader. She will also earn income sewing items with Sew Much Hope Project and will lift up the women around her with her sewing and leadership skills. With the support of the CRS Mini Grant, the lives of refugees in our own community are being changed, the dignity of women supported, and the value of work promoted in real and tangible ways.
Read More by clicking on the links below.