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Unsung Heroes Series: Helping Homeless Families In NY's Capital Region

Mary Giordano usually shuns the limelight. The music teacher, who became the executive director of Family Promise of the Capital Region, was driven by a desire to help others .

The agency found a home in a thriving upper middle-class neighborhood:  The former Bethany Reformed Church pastor's residence at 738 New Scotland Avenue in Albany, which has become a hive of activity since it opened back in April.

Families are able to use shower and laundry facilities. They have a street address at which they can receive mail. But more importantly, they have a caregiver who makes certain their transition from uncertainty to stability is a successful one.

Giordano’s deep commitment to assist needy families was awakened by a chain of events.  "Well as a parishoner of the Church of Our Lady of the Americas I learned about Family Promise from our chaplain, Father Frank O'Connor. I had left teaching for awhile to stay home with my children, who are now all in school. When I heard Father O'Connor talk about Family Promise and the difference it was making across the country, I really wanted to  get involved."

O'Connor read about Family Promise in America magazine.  "And when we were thinking about getting this started, the thing that I often thought about was 'What would it be like if I were a father and I couldn't take care of my wife and children?'"

Giordano says by the summer of 2012, the decision was made to move forward and she embraced the program.    "We view ourselves actually as a ministry. We know we're an organization. We know we need to work and think like an agency, but most of the people you talk to are involved because they really feel a calling to serve the poor."

Girodano channeled her teaching talents into powers of persuasion. Becky Marvin of B'nai Shalom Reform Congregation heard about the program from the Jewish Federation, but couldn't come up with the number of volunteers to become a “host congregation.”    "We wanted very much to be part of the program. Mary paired us with Delmar Presbyterian Church and so two nights a week we provide the meals and companionship and we're moving into also being some of the sleepover volunteers. So we all do it together, and it is just a feeling of community and family."

A member of the Delmar Presbyterian Church, Sam Messina helps co-ordinate providing services to those seeking shelter at Family Promise.  "Mary came in and made a presentation. There were a bunch of people that listened to that and then, of course, all organizations have hierarchy and we took ours to the sessions and they said 'Yes, let's support this, let's get involved with it.'"

Giordano explains the inner mechanics of the Albany outreach.  "We have an interfaith hospitality network of congregations, different faiths who work together to serve the homeless, in our greater Capital Region. We do specifically serve families, who are the fastest-growing population of the homeless, all the congregations working together to provide overnight hospitality to three to four families, one week at a time, four or five times a year, that really gives them the sense of belonging to a community."

Giordano works tirelessly to invite, meet with and connect church congregations to the program. To date, she's built a network of 10.  "It's really important to get the word out in this community that we are here so that we are inviting people to participate, volunteer here at our day center or at one of the host congregations."

But running the facility can be daunting. One of the key components of the operation is the van driver who shuttles the families as they obtain other services and pursue opportunities. Giordano is ready to get behind the wheel, or for that matter, wear any other hat if need be. "We knew this was new, we knew this was a very different way of really participating to help the homeless. It's truly hands-on. It's inviting homeless families into your house of worship, providing them with a meal, providing a safe place to sleep, privacy to the best of the ability a congregation can provide. It's being with them all the time, to interact. Many of our guests have actually had job interviews, they've been hooked up with different apartments to look at, simply from their interactions with the volunteers in the congregations. It opens a whole new network for them."

Giiordano has to contend with public sentiment divided over refugees, many displaced by world conflict and climate change, not to mention the growing number of poor here in the homeland. Again, Sam Messina:  "There are 3.5 million new homeless people in the United States every year. That's not a good statistic. 40 percent of those new homeless people are women and children. 27 percent are veterans."

Wali — not her real name — is a young mother who emigrated to the U.S. seven months ago.   "I was pregnant myself, I had a newborn and we had faced so much challenges, such as finding eats, finding a decent place to stay so I would say we'd be homeless and not be able to get to the hospital or to get any services."

Wali hails from a war-torn nation in Africa. She says if not for Giordano and Family Promise, her family might be living on the street.  "In life sometimes you're facing some situation where you are running for your life and you just want to get access to some services, such as clean water or sanitation for your kids, or just to be in a safe place and a secure place, and to be able also to have freedom of speech."

Giordano wants to see all the families under her care find homes and jobs so they can assimilate.   "We do want to get them as quickly as possible onto their feet. Nationwide Family Promise has been able to help families become established in their own home sometimes in just as little over a month, two months, three months. So it's a question of rapidly getting them there, but in a way that's stable, that's gonna be enduring so that they're never homeless again."

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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