Bonita and Aiden, the parents of seven children ages 17 to 3, wanted to do something special for their oldest son to celebrate his high school graduation. But even something as simple as making his favorite meal was out of reach because the COVID-19 pandemic claimed Aiden’s job as a carpenter. With the family patriarch unemployed and unable to find work of any kind as the city’s economy was shut down, the struggling parents barely had enough food to feed their children, let alone buy extra food for a modest family celebration. What happened next, says Bonita, was a small miracle.
Her prayers – and an online application to the Franciscan Relief Fund – were answered. She received a Stop & Shop gift card that enabled her to buy the extras that would surprise their son with his favorite meal – frankfurters, rolls, and baked beans.
“Life under normal conditions is difficult for us, but it has become impossible since the coronavirus outbreak. At the end of the day, my husband and I eat the scraps, whatever the kids leave behind. Feeding our children, keeping them safe from the virus, and paying the bills and rent has been a nightmare. In my heart,” says Bonita, “when we received that gift card from the Franciscan Relief Fund, I know God provided for us so we could make our son happy and celebrate his graduation.”
Bonita and Aiden are among 1,400 families in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut that, as of early July have received $100 Stop & Shop supermarket gift cards from the Franciscan Relief Fund – an initiative launched on April 20 by HNP’s Development Office to provide support to unemployed individuals in the food, hospitality, entertainment, trades, and other industries whose financial struggles during the pandemic put them in dire need of a lifeline.
The Development Office has already decided to continue the program through the summer months.
‘Felt Like Christmas Morning’
Grace said the Franciscan Sisters’ food pantry provided groceries to her family of four – which, in turn, enabled her to share some of the bounty with neighbors.
“It felt like Christmas morning when I arrived home from the food pantry with a very generous food donation. Everyone in my household was so excited. We didn’t waste a morsel of food. The real blessing came when we were able to share some bread and eggs with our neighbors,” Grace said.
She then received a phone call informing her that in addition to the groceries she picked up from the food pantry, she would be receiving a $100 Stop & Shop gift card from the Franciscan Relief Fund. “It was amazing. We went from having nothing to so much. We were barely able to sleep that night because we were filled with joy and so thankful to God,” Grace said.
David Convertino, OFM, said that hearing these stories makes him feel incredibly blessed and inspired.
“Even in their desperation, people are thankful to God. As Christians, but especially as friars, we are called to serve the marginalized. The people we are helping with the gift cards have too easily fallen through the cracks because they are hourly wage earners – many of whom are undocumented immigrants – which means they don’t have access to government relief funds and benefits. This is a very Franciscan approach to this crisis,” he said.
“Hourly wage earners – for example, restaurant workers, sports stadium vendors, stagehands, and hotel housekeepers – have little to no job security. Working remotely is not an option, so their income has stopped,” said David, executive director of HNP’s Development Office.
Family Doesn’t Go Hungry
Jason called the $100 food assistance card provided by the Province a “huge blessing” for him and his family. “I was in awe of what they were doing for us. I did everything I could to hold back tears of joy. I have no words – other than to say it was a miracle. If it weren’t for this community of Franciscans, my family would be going hungry,” he said.
Devon, 87, said he didn’t realize the $100 gift card from the Franciscans would become such a lifesaver. Three weeks before the card arrived, his wife of 64 years tripped and broke her shoulder and hip. Although she was asymptomatic, she tested positive for COVID-19 when she was admitted to the hospital. After undergoing hip surgery, she was placed in a COVID recovery ward, only to pass away three days later.
“I have been totally consumed, first with the pandemic and then with the sudden passing of my wife. Living on a fixed income, we often tried to stretch the food that we received from the pantry. To receive the gift card from the Franciscan Relief Fund was not only a blessing, but it also got me out of the house for the first time in three months and gave me the dignity to shop for myself. It provided me with enough food to last for two months,” said Devon, adding, “I just wish my wife were here to share it with me.”
David said the Stop & Shop supermarket chain has been a “tremendous partner with the Province,” stretching the purchasing power of the Franciscan Relief Fund by discounting gift card purchases.
Those seeking assistance from the fund are required to complete an online application that is vetted by the Development Office, which then passes the names and addresses of qualified applicants to Stop & Shop’s corporate offices. The food retailer processes and mails the $100 gift card to the approved applicants.
Included in the envelope with the $100 gift card is a flyer with a message from David that reads: “Thank you for applying to the Franciscan Relief Fund. The Franciscan friars hope that this card brings you and your loved ones some relief and peace during these uncertain times.”
In addition to providing a brief overview of Holy Name Province, the flyer describes FriarWorks, the HNP Development Office website that fundraises for the friars and their ministries.
Some recipients have participated in an emotional video, sharing their gut-wrenching stories and appealing to viewers for donations to the Franciscan Relief Fund which is used to purchase gift cards.
Among those who appear in the video are a single mother laid off from her job of 21 years, a veteran concession worker at Yankee Stadium who will remain out of work even when the abbreviated baseball season begins because teams will play without fans in the stands, and a young bartender whose job continues to hang in the balance as inside dining at New York City restaurants was delayed for fear of a spike in coronavirus cases.
“I haven’t worked in a long time. My mother and sister, and my sister’s children, live with me, so I have to take care of them,” said Jose, the bartender who has been laid off from work since March 16. “It’s very stressful and sometimes it’s hard to sleep because I am worried about buying enough food.”
David said the Franciscan Relief Fund will continue through the summer since it could be several weeks — or even months — before people with hourly wage jobs return to work.
“One thing is certain – given the number of families we have provided for, and the great need for this program – the Province plans to maintain the Franciscan Relief Fund as a regular initiative. We envision it serving the same way the Red Cross operates,” explained David, adding, “This fund will respond to needs that arise as a result of natural disasters, such as hurricanes and superstorms. It will be ready to go when disaster strikes.”
Donations can be made online through the FranciscanReliefFund.org website or by sending a check made out to “Franciscan Relief Fund” to Franciscan Friars-Holy Name Province, 144 West 32nd Street, New York, NY 10001-3202.
— Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.
Editor’s Note: Some of the names in this article were changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.
- “Ministry Outreach Intensifies in a Changed World” — April 9, 2020, HNP Today