Agency Spotlight Vol 48 No 1

Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens provides essential food assistance to New Yorkers in need during global pandemic

Dedicated to Thomas A. DeStefano, former Executive Director of Catholic Charities, Diocese of Brooklyn, and former President of Catholic Charities USA

This Spring, the actions of Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens’ staff, donors, and volunteers were never truer than these words from Pope Francis: “We need to rediscover the concreteness of small things, the small acts of kindness shown to those who are close to us, family, friends. We need to realize that our treasure lies in small things… a hot plate of food, a caress, a hug, a phone call… These are familiar, attentive gestures regarding everyday details that make life meaningful, and create communion and communication amongst us.”

At the height of the pandemic, Brooklyn and Queens, in New York City, was the epicenter of COVID-19 in the United States. News outlets reported that Brooklyn and Queens accounted for nearly 60 percent of all COVID-19 cases in the New York metropolitan area. With the virus spreading and the shutdown of schools and non-essential businesses, Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens felt the impact of thousands of our neighbors dealing with so much. From the fear of the virus and the loss of their loved ones to an uncertain future caused by unemployment and poverty, Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens has served on the front lines of emergency response for years (including 9/11 and Superstorm Sandy), so we were able to turn our attention to emergency crisis care quickly.

Agency Photo

In partnership with local parishes, Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens began emergency pop-up food pantries at different parish sites every week, providing much-needed food to those struggling with the virus. Up to 10,000 individuals, many with large families and some of whom had their children with them waiting on line from the previous night, lined up to receive a box of food—many, we know, with the virus as well, but hungry and in dire need.

Most of these individuals had faced a multitude of crises during the pandemic and received access to supportive services via our call center and behavioral health services via telehealth. Many had lost their jobs, wages, fell ill, cared for the ill, and did not qualify for federal stimulus packages. Within a few short weeks, employees at our food pantries reported a 1,000-percent increase in food requests. In five weeks, we distributed more than a million meals to more than 100,000 individuals with families. Seeing a great need, Catholic Charities expanded our efforts of providing much-needed food packages and services at the 20 Catholic Charities parish-based food pantries and an additional 27 affiliate pantries located throughout both boroughs. In total, the agency distributed over $3 million in food assistance.

In the midst of the pandemic, I would send daily emails to the Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens employees, asking them to join in prayer for the needy and the lost during the pandemic. I recall sending an overwhelming amount of emails—up to eight death announcements daily for four weeks. Then we received word of the passing of Mr. Thomas A. DeStefano, retired Executive Director of Catholic Charities, Diocese of Brooklyn, who passed on April 24 from complications related to COVID-19. He was 82. 

In 1979, Tom became the first lay Executive Director of Catholic Charities, Diocese of Brooklyn. After 33 years of service to the Diocese of Brooklyn and the poor and struggling residents of Brooklyn and Queens, he retired in 2002 and served briefly as President of Catholic Charities USA, and then for several years as a Board Member of Catholic Charities Neighborhood Services, Inc., Sts. Joachim and Anne Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, Family Home Care and Care at Home agencies. During his time at Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens and after the CADRE Study of 1972, Tom ensured the agency focused on community outreach to those in need. He established regional centers to bring the Mission of Charities into the reach of the local communities. And when I started in Catholic Charities in the early 1980s, I was given the position of “liaison” within the communities. Tom’s vision for Catholic Charities was to see it as an agent of change, building caring communities rooted in the second great commandment, ‘Love your neighbor.’

Tom’s faith drove his commitment to service. He lived the Eucharist and attended morning Mass daily until his recent illness. The present pandemic efforts within the Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queen’s emergency pop-up food programs and growth of food pantries operating out of parishes are a continuation of Tom’s vision.

Today, the Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens network of food pantries, senior centers, residences and home-delivered meals have provided more than 4 million meals during the crisis. Still, we need to do more. As New York State faces a resurgence of COVID-19, Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens will continue to serve these communities severely impacted, daily living out of our mission of service to others.  As we move forward, we are guided by these words from Pope Francis, “We need to rediscover the concreteness of small things, the small acts of kindness shown to those who are close to us.”