Two programs reach out to needy in Charleston, on Sea Islands

Henry Wright (second from left) receives a slice of pie at the Neighborhood House on America Street in downtown Charleston. Beside him is kitchen superintendent Vonceil Mitchell. Behind the counter (from left) are George McBean, Carolyn Gibbs and Sister M

Just over five years ago, a then-fairly new program helping the needy on Johns Island reached out to an older, similarly vital charitable program on the Charleston peninsula.

A merging of the two programs followed, and the union is working well. Both programs -- the Our Lady of Mercy Community Outreach Services Inc. on Brownswood Road on Johns Island and the Neighborhood House at 77 America St. downtown -- are growing and offering new services, said Sister Mary Joseph, director of the Johns Island outreach center.

Both programs provide food, clothing, skills training, health services, education and other services that are in more demand than ever as the national economy continues to sag, Ritter said.

Hundreds of volunteers make the programs successful, and part of funding for both the downtown and Johns Island centers comes from an annual charity event, Ritter said. This year's Sharing Blessings From the Heart auction will begin at 1 p.m. Feb. 13 at the Marriott Hotel on Lockwood Drive in Charleston.

The event features silent auctions as well as a live auction conduced by auctioneer Doug Warner in which a vacation in Africa will be sold, Ritter said.

Support for both Neighborhood House and the outreach center also comes from the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy. The sisters started both the Neighborhood House and the outreach center, and after many years both centers once again are functioning under the Sisters of Charity umbrella, Ritter noted.

"In 2005, the outreach center decided to take the Neighborhood House on as part of our mission," Ritter said. "We've returned to our roots."

Neighborhood House was established in 1915 by St. Francis Xavier Hospital, which was sponsored by the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy. Neighborhood House served as an outreach arm of the hospital and was managed and operated by the religious order and their employees.

While managed by the Sisters of Charity, Neighborhood House served as a well-baby clinic, job-training program for boys, educational classes for women and health dispensary for those who were uninsured. The Catholic Diocese of Charleston took over the sponsorship of Neighborhood House in the late 1960s, and about 20 years ago, the center opened its soup kitchen, Ritter said.

Some 200 volunteers and the Lowcountry Food Bank help Neighborhood House serve 150-200 hot meals Monday-Friday for the needy on the city's East Side. A clothing closet and emergency services also are provided by Neighborhood House, which is expanding its classes on computer operation and other skills, general education and health programs.

New classrooms are being created with volunteer help in a home adjacent to the center, Ritter said.

Vonceil Mitchell, superintendent of the Neighborhood House kitchen, has watched the meal program grow for 19 years. "We're bringing more people in than ever now," she said, citing the poor national economy and lack of local jobs.

Especially on cold winter days, adults crowd into the 200-seat dining area. In summer, Mitchell said, the kitchen serves many children. "The parents can't feed them," she said.

The kitchen requires that children coming to eat are accompanied by adults, "but they want to come by themselves," she added.

The Johns Island outreach was established in 1989 to address emergency, educational and health needs of Sea Island residents, Ritter said. She added that 7,700 residents were provided emergency services over the past year.

While it does not serve hot meals, the outreach center has a food-distribution program, clothing room, financial support for emergencies, skills classes, quilting and general literacy instruction, English as a Second Language classes, and sessions aimed at acquiring the GED. Also offered are women's health and prenatal health care services, and dental services provided by volunteer and retired dentists.

She said the center's budget-planning and life-skills classes served more than 200 people, and children participate in after-school tutoring programs and a summer-enrichment camp.