CHAMPAIGN — To feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless.
Catholic Charities of Peoria once partnered with the state to provide services for the poor and vulnerable because that partnership was in keeping with its mission.
But in the past year — since a dispute over Illinois' civil-unions law led to the church agency's withdrawal from state-funded social service contracts — Catholic Charities has been left to carve out a new future for itself.
"We were forced to re-evaluate what we could provide while remaining true to our mission," Catholic Charities of Peoria spokeswoman Liesa Dugan said.
Six months ago, most of the staff and former workload of Catholic Charities of Peoria — adoptions, foster care, and youth and family counseling services — were transferred to a new secular agency based in Peoria, the Center for Youth and Family Solutions.
But some new Catholic Charities services are beginning to emerge.
A new Catholic Charities food bank opened Oct. 1 at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Tolono. And an outreach program for the elderly offering in-home counseling and volunteer assistance is available to serve Champaign and Piatt counties.
"It's an inspiring restart," said Leslie Rose, co-president of the Catholic Charities community advisory board for Champaign and Piatt counties. "It's a rebirth. It's an older version of service where the people provide for the people."
The decision to terminate adoption and foster care cases handled by Catholic Charities in Peoria, Joliet, Springfield and Belleville was made last summer by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.
Catholic Charities doesn't recognize Illinois' new civil-unions law and won't place children with unmarried couples, on the basis of Catholic religious teachings.
All four dioceses pursued litigation but later withdrew it.
Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria announced last October that Catholic Charities would withdraw from all state-funded social service contracts and would transfer its foster care and adoption contracts to the newly created agency to prevent disruption to the 1,000 foster care children and families in that area.
No government contracts means Catholic Charities is operating on donations these days.
"It's really an interesting time for us at Catholic Charities," Dugan said. "Really, Bishop Daniel Jenky said, Hey, we're going to go without any government funding. We're no longer accepting any government funding, even from United Way."
Today's Catholic Charities of Peoria is a much-trimmed- down operation.
Most of its nearly 400 former employees went to work for the Center for Youth and Family Solutions, with fewer than 20 staff members remaining to work for the 27 counties of the diocese, Dugan said.
Jenky defines Catholic Charities' current role in terms of the church's Corporal Works of Mercy, which include seven acts to show charity to others, among them feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and visiting the sick.
"Essentially this is about the refounding of Catholic Charities and the re-energizing of collective support for the Corporal Works of Mercy," he said in a written statement issued through Dugan.
With adoption, foster care and counseling services for children handled by the new agency in Champaign and Piatt counties, Catholic Charities has newly focused its attention on the elderly and hungry families through its Good Samaritan senior outreach program and a new food bank.
The Good Samaritan program offers free in-home counseling and volunteer helpers for chores and transportation, and the new food bank at Tolono's St. Patrick Catholic Church is for all needy families in the area.
There aren't any Catholic Charities services in Vermilion County, Dugan said, but future services there are still being evaluated.
Catholic Charities is also operating a senior counseling program in McLean County and a food pantry in Peoria; Rachel's Vineyard retreats for women who have had abortions; and is also offering outreach services for the Hispanic population and veterans.
In September, Catholic Charities opened two new services in Peoria to serve all needy families throughout the diocese — the St. Gianna Baby Pantry to distribute supplies for infants and children, and the St. Joseph Furniture Bank to distribute furniture.
Catholic Charities has also created a St. Vincent DePaul Society phone line (309-677-7696) that anyone throughout the 26 counties can call for help with various needs, Dugan said.
Catholic Charities also ran a free summer program for needy kids, under the name St. John Bosco Summer Camp, and considered the program a success, she said.
"We'll continue to do things like that, and hopefully go further than that," Dugan said.
Rose said Catholic Charities' vision is local money raised for local services.
The Good Samaritan program has been expanded with a full-time counselor, she said, and she sees that as a big benefit because there are so many issues such as grief, loss and disease affecting seniors.
There are also monthly potluck lunches at St. Patrick church in Tolono that are providing important social opportunities for folks who might otherwise feel isolated, Rose said.
"Our mission is from Christ," she said. "Children need to be adopted, but that's not the limit that we can do. It's not that if you're not doing that, if you're not doing this one thing, there's nothing else you can do. The priests have identified the need for food and counseling. Families are under such stress. The last things we should be is discouraged because we don't have state contracts."
Robert Taylor, Good Samaritan senior counselor, said the program has counseling openings for people needing that service and could also use more volunteers to help seniors with chores and transportation, especially in smaller communities in the area.
Good Samaritan program volunteers largely work in smaller towns and rural areas since Provena's Faith in Action program covers Champaign-Urbana, he said.
"It could range from doing a little bit of yard work to taking them to a medical appointment to a friendly visit," Taylor said.
The food bank in Tolono is operating from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. every Monday. Area families can use it once a month but need to bring a photo ID, he said.
While a division of beliefs caused the split of adoption and other services to a new agency, both Catholic Charities and the Center for Youth and Family Solutions contend the transition of state contract services has gone smoothly, and the state agrees.
"Because of the strong network of private child welfare agencies in Illinois, this transition went very, very smoothly," said Kendall Marlowe, Illinois Department of Children and Family Services spokesman. "The professionals in these organizations stepped up across the state to honor their commitment to children and families, and we're very grateful for that commitment."
The Center for Youth and Family Solutions, which picked up state adoption and foster care casework from both the Peoria and Springfield dioceses, bought Catholic Charities buildings in Champaign and Danville and bought or leased Catholic Charities' other buildings in Bloomington, Galesburg, Macomb, Lincoln, LaSalle and Peoria, according to Shane White, the center's chief logistics officer.
Center for Youth and Family Solutions spokeswoman Megan Murphy said services include, in addition to foster care and adoption services: counseling, pregnancy planning and support services, youth, family and community outreach services and intact family services designed to keep families referred by DCFS together and kids safe in the home.
Dugan said Catholic Charities will continue to bring new services to its communities and is taking some steps to increase its visibility, too.
Catholic Charities of Peoria on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/CatholicCharitiesPeoria
To volunteer for the Good Samaritans program: Email Robert Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 309-397-9169.