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We have all developed a much greater appreciation for the lesser-known “essential workers” during the pandemic—grocery and warehouse employees, delivery personnel, maintenance staff, mail carriers, truck drivers and thousands of others whose jobs are essential to our day-to-day lives. I hope these unsung heroes have been properly recognized and that we never take these important jobs for granted again. There is another group of essential, front-line workers who may not be traditionally recognized as such—the employees and volunteers of social service agencies who are playing a critical role in fighting the pandemic.

It is the mission of Catholic Charities and other social service agencies to care for those hardest hit by this or any other crisis, often developing creative ways to ensure the unemployed, the homeless, children, seniors, or victims of domestic violence receive the help and mercy they so need and deserve. These vulnerable groups are least able to navigate the treacherous waters in which we find ourselves and charitable agencies, with the support of donors and volunteers, are on the frontlines working very hard to stem the tide and mitigate the effects the pandemic.

Staff and volunteers are working tirelessly to package and distribute food at our 9 food pantries that have seen double and triple the number of people requesting help. We have ensured mothers and children residing in “food deserts” have access to nutritious food and nutrition education at our 16 neighborhood WIC Food Centers. We are providing individual hot take-out meals to anyone in need 5 days a week at multiple locations throughout Cook and Lake counties. We have bolstered our home-delivered meal programs for homebound seniors; our homemakers continue to help seniors with the tasks of daily living; and we continue to do home visits to stabilize at-risk families. We are daily transporting the homeless to shelter through our Mobile Outreach program; we continue to safely shelter those who flee their homes due to violence; and our counselors and case managers are busy providing virtual sessions to children and adults suffering from mental health, anxiety and substance use disorders. To be sure, Catholic Charities professional social work staff are critical to our operations, but our amazing volunteers and our own band of dedicated warehouse staff, truck drivers, and maintenance personnel are also going above and beyond during this time.

With each direct service encounter, there is another important role that social service staff play in fighting the pandemic, and that is providing health education. Many people still lack a basic understanding of the virus and how to slow its spread. Perhaps they do not have televisions or access to social media, don’t understand English or cannot read, can’t weed through the information overload, or simply don’t trust the news media. With every interaction, Catholic Charities teaches people how to keep their families safe and educates them about hand-washing, mask-wearing, proper cleaning in their homes, meal planning to avoid extra trips outside the home, and what social distancing looks like in practice. Even our security guards and receptionists are playing a critical role in this process as we properly distance people who must visit our sites and pass out masks to those who have none.

I could not be more proud of the staff and volunteers at Catholic Charities, and I am so grateful for their service. Despite the risks, they are out there every day feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, comforting the sorrowful, counseling the doubtful, educating the uninformed, and truly engaging in every one of the acts of corporal and spiritual mercy. Please keep our essential social service workers in your prayers as they battle the effects of the pandemic and bring help and hope to the most vulnerable among us.

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