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Posted August 30, 2005

A success story well worth reduplicating on our parishes. For more stories of this type, please go to the section on our web site titled: “Success stories.”

Job-readiness training program
has much to offer parish, workers

By Gregory A. Shemitz
Catholic News Service

Since its formation as a faith community in 1988, the Parish of the Holy Cross in Nesconset has promoted hospitality as an integral element of its mission. A life-size statue of a seated Christ, right arm extended in an expression of cordial welcome, sits at the entrance to the parish's worship center. The parish motto, "Let all who enter be welcomed as Christ," is imprinted at the bottom of its weekly bulletin.

That spirit of fellowship led the parish seven years ago to begin a collaboration that offers job-readiness training to people with developmental disabilities, mental illness and/or traumatic brain injury.

Family Residences and Essential Enterprises, an agency in Old Bethpage known as FREE, contacted the parish in its effort to find prevocational training opportunities for individuals who attend its day habilitation center in Islandia, a town that borders Nesconset.

If the parish provided dust cloths, brooms and Windex, the agency would supply a crew of eager volunteers to do light cleaning at the church.

"We knew right away that this was something we wanted to be involved with," said Mary Anne McCulloch, who helps to coordinate the parish's outreach ministry. "It fit our Christian mission. ... (It) was a wonderful opportunity for Holy Cross to live out its commitment to walk with those who face a particular challenge in life."

With the blessing of the parish's then-co-pastors, Fathers William Breslawski and Joseph Schlafer, and other members of the pastoral team, a working relationship was established between Holy Cross and FREE. The arrangement has continued ever since.

"It was a win-win for everybody," said Father Breslawski, now pastor of Our Lady of Peace Church in Lynbrook. "We enthusiastically embraced the idea. We knew that the individuals from FREE would benefit from the experience and we knew that their presence among us would be a tremendous blessing for our parish."

Every Thursday, a van transports a group of five to seven trainees to Holy Cross from FREE's Islandia center. They work under the supervision of a habilitation specialist assistant from the agency and the parish custodian.

Tasks include sweeping the black tile floors in the worship center and atrium; dusting the pews and sanctuary; and cleaning the church's glass doors and the windows in an adjoining corridor.

"It's good exercise," said a smiling Danny Aquino, 23, as he pushed a dust mop along the floor during a recent visit to Holy Cross. "Hopefully it will help me get a job," he added.

Aquino was joined that day by Irwin Pieczlewski, 55; John Catucci, 49; Donald Diamond, 36; and Mary-Claire Jewell, 35. They were accompanied by Frances Floyd, a habilitation specialist assistant, and Jenise Pegues, a developmental aide employed by New York state.

The trainees focus on their work, rarely slow down and usually complete their duties within an hour.

"The aim of the program is to increase our consumers' prevocational and job-readiness skills," said Laura Graf, a program director for FREE. "We want them to learn to be independent, gain confidence and learn skills to help them gain future employment."

Holy Cross custodian Jim McManus appreciates the assistance he receives from the trainees.

"Everything they do is helping me as much as it helps them," said McManus, the most recent of four custodians who have worked with the trainees over the years. "What would take me over an hour to do, they do in no time flat."

"I can't speak enough about our custodial staff," said McCulloch. "Everyone has been extremely receptive. They have interacted so well with the trainees. It's been a wonderful relationship both ways."

For its part, the agency appreciates the hospitality and spirit of welcome extended by Holy Cross.

"It's wonderful when you can foster connections in the community to help you accomplish your goals," said Graf. "Not everyone wants to make the time and effort to offer these opportunities. At a place like Holy Cross our consumers get to integrate into the community. They feel like they're contributing members of the community and society."