By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator

Responding to natural disasters or human crisis with transcendent proficiency has been the standard for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge.

But the coronavirus pandemic has presented a unique gauntlet even for an agency that has handled crises from Hurricane Katrina to the flood of 2016 to immigrant and refugee resettlements.

“It’s not the kind of crisis where you can rebuild somebody’s house, or cut trees, and the work is done,” CCDBR executive director David Aguillard said. “We are deprived of that by the very nature of this crisis.

“The need is greater than anything we have ever encountered.”

Despite the unprecedented challenges, CCDBR quickly mobilized and, despite being in the middle of a transition in technology, has become the leader in offering relief to the most needy in the diocese.

The numbers are telling. Since the threat first appeared in Louisiana, CCDBR has opened 415 new cases, provided 1,000 units of service and $50,000 worth of financial assistance, including $21,000 in emergency housing and $10,000 worth of gas cards for low-income health care workers.

Additionally grocery/gift cards were provided to residents, many distributed through Society of St. Vincent de Paul councils at local church parishes.

“We are getting assistance into the front lines, into the hands of the priests and parish administrations, which is where people show up first,” Aguillard said.

All told, the agency provided an estimated $90,000 worth of direct services during the first several weeks of response.

“What is striking to me is the footprint of our services is spread even a little bit beyond diocesan boundaries,” Aguillard said.

He said because of the growing immigration population and the agency’s immigration legal services department, which is one of the largest along the Gulf Coast from Tampa to Texas, CCDBR has provided COVID services from Vermillion Bay to Cutoff to Covington and even to Lake Charles.

He said the burgeoning radius is reflective of the agency’s commitment to reaching out to so many immigrants, noting that half of the cases pertaining strictly to COVID-19 are  50 percent Hispanic.

“This jump right now in the Hispanic community is reflective of the importance of our immigration services to the immigrant community and reflective of how immigrants tend to be hourly workers with low paying jobs,” Aguillard said. “That labor force is usually the first to suffer in an economic downturn.”

“What we are dealing with is an economic crisis brought about by COVID,” he added. “Ninety percent of people we are assisting have a financial crisis because of a loss of employment, loss of wages, reduction of hours, or someone in the household becoming unemployed.

“Ten percent are due to a need of financial assistance because of illness.”

Financial assistance has been distributed in the forms of assisting with rent or utilities, providing emergency housing or distributing grocery/gift cards.

He recalled one mother who was living with her three young children in their car. Aguillard said it was ultimately determined the most logical solution was for the family to join relatives in Denver, so CCDBR provided gas and gift cards for their travel expense and “put them on their way.”

“These kinds of issues are arising because most shelters are not taking new residents,” Aguillard said, counting CCDBR’s Sanctuary for Life and Family First shelters among those numbers. “Our primary responsibility is to keep our current clients safe and to protect our staff, but we are helping people find (alternative means of) housing.”

Aguillard said all of the money distributed has come through donations, and all of the contributions are dollar for dollar “going out the door” because the current crisis is so urgent and traumatized people need assistance as quickly as possible while waiting for federal dollars to arrive.

Although the vast majority of the $50,000 of financial assistance went to new clients, Aguillard emphasized there has been no reduction in the traditional services provided by CCDBR.

“We are filling the gap in such a sudden and drastic shutdown of our way of life, our daily activities,” he said.

Also changing is the way donations are arriving. Typically during a natural disaster, such as the flood of 2016, the impacted area is finite and donations quickly flow in from around the country.

But no section of the country has been spared by the pandemic, so money that would perhaps be donated from elsewhere is staying on the local levels.

Aguillard did praise the local foundations, saying they have been “unexpectedly generous because you know they are hurting. Their investments are hurting.”

He said the agency has received six grants totaling $160,000, adding that during a typical national disaster, usually within a couple of weeks of the event, at least “five times that amount has come in from all around the country, if not 10 times that amount.”

“This is all local foundations but they are putting out as much money into the community as they possibly can,” he added. “They realize now is not the time to sit on assets; now is the time to assist the community.”

CCDBR officials are staying in touch with local and state officials tracking any additional federal funding, positioning the agency to distribute those new funds into the community as rapidly as possible.

Currently, the agency has dedicated five full-time employees to strictly working on COVID-19 relief and another five part-time employees. Aguillard said he is also working full-time on the response.

“What it shows is that when there is a need in the community, Catholic Charities has a mission-driven purpose to pivot immediately to address those needs in the most thorough way we can,” he said. “What it means to me is it’s a reflection on the meaning of the incarnation that we are supposed to be in this world and working through this world to show and bring compassion and mercy of God’s love.

“That means we avail ourselves to technology, new ways of serving our customers, engage in funding streams that come from public sources because it then puts us in a position where we can fulfill that Gospel mandate that ‘whatever you do to the least of these you are doing it to Jesus.’ That is what motivates us.”

BY THE NUMBERS

CCDBR’S COVID-19 RESPONSE

415 Cases opened

1,000 Units of service

$10,000 Gas cards
distributed

$21,000 Emergency
housing distributed

$50,000 Financial
assistance provided

$90,000 Value of
services provided

$160,000 Total of
grants received