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When exploring new missions in the area, the parishioners at St. James' Episcopal Church in Skaneateles, took a long, thoughtful journey. In 2015, they started with a yearlong discernment process to help them narrow their focus and energies.

Christina Stavenhagen-Helgren, church member, and Nancy Graham, pastoral care team leader, shared the importance of taking the time and involving the membership in both the direction of the church and how it serves the community. They prayed, listened to God and hosted small group discussions. As their work moved forward, they began to realize that, no matter what they did, an important element of their work would be to build personal relationships and not just financially support a cause or entity.

Members discussed what worked well in the past and what things to carry forward, and by spring 2016, they were venturing out to listen and learn about community needs. They conducted about 30 community interviews from Syracuse to Auburn. Some places they knew about, others were new. One group toured the Syracuse Rescue Mission, where they learned that the services were expanding in Auburn. In May, the mission team led a full-day retreat where they looked at all their work, and three distinct themes emerged: affordable housing, mental health support and youth.

As this process was unfolding, the footprint of the Rescue Mission in Auburn was also undergoing an expansion. The Auburn Housing Authority was constructing the Merriman Street Family Transitions Project to provide more affordable housing locally. The Rescue Mission would provide on-site case management services to tenants.

From their initial visit to bringing the proposed partnership back to the church, collaborating with the Auburn Rescue Mission just made sense. Nancy said the project hit the three themes that St. James' was interested in, the staff welcomed them, and it felt like a place where they could truly build a relationship. And they truly have.

Auburn Rescue Mission Program Coordinator Cyndi Sharp said the volunteers from St. James' are “super, wonderful people!” She noted that, locally, the Rescue Mission can serve between 50 and 60 kids at any time and there is always a need for volunteers as the program offers year-round activities and events for families and children.

The St. James volunteers do a variety of things for the Merriman neighborhood. They transport children and families to events, provide items for craft projects, read and play games with the children. They also provide monthly financial support to the program. Cyndi said that you couldn’t ask for a better group of volunteers — they are patient, kind and willing to do most anything that is good for the kids. A new service that is underway is tutoring for those in high school.

The volunteer group has assisted with meal deliveries, Easter egg hunts, summer activities and more. They are an active presence at the Merriman site and, over time, have developed a relationship not only with the children, but with their parents as well. Christina said, “It’s been important for us and the families, that we are present and connecting.” There are about 55 volunteers on the list and they are hoping to involve more of the church’s young people as well.

Another core volunteer in the program is Nancy Corl. She volunteers because she believes that we all have some job to do to make our community a better place. She said, “In times where the norm seems to be each person thinking that their world view is the only right one to have, it helps to build connections with others — the 'bridges, not roadblocks' mindset. As a Christian person, I endorse this mission in my own life and I know our church endorses it, as well. We all can find opportunities for growth in our lives wherever we may be and whoever we are.” She is grateful that the Rescue Mission is located close to where she lives, so it is easily accessible. And she encourages others to get directly involved in their community.

St. James' has completed two full years of partnership with the Auburn Rescue Mission and are embarking on some new initiatives this year. This includes a once-a-month coffeehouse. Nancy and Christina are grateful that the Rescue Mission staff trusts their membership and that they, the volunteers and the program have all grown, in many ways, together. They look forward to where the partnership with the Auburn Rescue Mission continues to take them.

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Karen A. Macier, of Auburn, has spent 20 years working and volunteering in the not-for-profit sector.

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