It started with a simple idea during a church meeting.
The year was 1982 and members of a prayer group at the former Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church on South Avenue in Niagara Falls talked about what they could do to help residents who were struggling with food insecurity.
Out of that meeting, members of the prayer group, led by church parishioner John Porecca, decided to pursue the creation of an entire organization dedicated to serving those in need.
In 1983, the dream of the prayer group members officially became fulfilled as Heart, Love and Soul, Inc.
Today marks the 40th anniversary for the non-profit organization, which has changed locations and expanded services over the years while maintaining essentially the the same core mission of providing nourishment to the bodies, hearts and souls of the poor, the homeless and afflicted in the Falls.
“I think it’s a tribute the original folks who responded out of love for members of their community,” said Heart, Love and Soul’s current Executive Director Mark Baetzhold. “I think that’s something that has stayed here throughout these 40 years. The place is well named — heart, love and soul. You’ll hear people say that the name says it all.”
After settling on a name and filing the papers to be incorporated, Heart, Love and Soul started operating in the 1980s out of a former grocery store at 1501 Pierce Ave. The original space was donated to the group by the building’s owners, John and Margaret Maroon. The organization’s leaders, with financial help from Savino Nanula, later purchased the building, which served as Heart, Love and Soul’s first food pantry.
In those days, Baetzhold said the pantry was more like a distribution site where volunteers collected food items for distribution to other parts of the city.
“They prepared the meals there, but they shipped them out to different church halls and community halls,” Baetzhold said.
In 1997, the organization installed a commercial kitchen at the Pierce Avenue location, allowing the site to truck hot meals to other locations while it continued to serve as a food pantry.
In 2002, with help from local businessmen James Glynn and Paul Joy, Heart, Love & Soul purchased its current location, a former Salvation Army store at 939 Ontario Ave.
Two years later, under the leadership of former Executive Director Sister Barbara Pfohl, the site began offering services to the community through a food pantry, dining room and nutrition programs.
In 2019, Heart, Love & Soul, under the leadership of former director Sister Beth Brosmer, embarked on arguably its most ambitious initiative to date — a $4 million expansion that involved the addition of a 6,000-square foot building to the Ontario Avenue site.
Now named in the former director’s honor, the Sr. Beth Brosmer Center serves as home to Heart, Love & Soul’s Daybreak program, which serves as a one-stop center for individuals in need, offering access to housing, healthcare, employment, education and legal services as well as facilities where guests can do their laundry, get their haircut or take a shower.
Baetzhold said the initiative came together following meetings with other county service providers who felt it was important to establish more of a one-stop center for services for the needy in the community.
“It was not just an initiative of Heart, Love & Soul,” he said. “It came out of conversations that providers in the Niagara County Coalition for the Homeless were having. They were experiencing challenges in providing services to their clients and that group came together wanting to together to identity challenges and barriers and ways that they might address those.”
“One of the major outcomes of that kind of deep dive into the problems was recognizing even though there’s a good number of service providers in Niagara Falls and Niagara County, a lot of people don’t get from point A to Point B,” Baetzhold added. “Somewhere along the line they fall off. They might get a referral, but they don’t get to the next place and the cycle of poverty continues.”
The Rev. Raymond Allen, long-time pastor of Bethany Missionary Baptist Church who was recently elected president of Heart, Love & Soul’s board of directors said the Daybreak project builds upon the organization’s partnerships with other community organizations while better serving the needs of its guests.
“Now there’s a place to have a shower, there’s a place to get a free haircut if you don’t have the means to do that,” Allen said. “I think Daybreak has been an excellent addition.”
STRONG FOUNDATION, SUPPORTIVE STAFF
Allen believes one of the secrets to Heart, Love & Soul’s success over the years has involved its long history of finding dedicated staff members and volunteers. He said the people who help run the organization are not only adept at helping people in need but also in raising funds needed to ensure funds can continue to be delivered.
“They have a well-oiled machine at Heart, Love & Soul,” Allen said. “They have an excellent staff that runs the operation.”
Today, Heart, Love & Soul has a staff of 20 employees, with several positions dedicated to specific areas such as social work, coordinated entry, housing, homeless outreach and guest services. In addition, the center typically has between 60 and 70 volunteers.
Baetzhold said the organization recently added a part-time community health nurse, formerly provided to Heart, Love and Soul under a partnership with Mount St. Mary’s Hospital, to its own staff. Baetzhold said the position — currently held by a Daughters of Charity member Sister Louise Gallahue — has been essential to helping guests with blood pressure checks, wound care and other health needs.
“A lot of folks probably rely on her as their first point of contact for health care so it is a real critical position,” Baetzhold said.
Heart, Love & Soul frequently coordinates special community events around holidays and runs vaccine and other health care clinics throughout the year. In addition, the center serves as a case manager for the Niagara Falls Housing Authority, providing services to elderly residents living at Wrobel and Spallino towers.
“I think the fact that there’s so many people here, staff and volunteers, that are vested in the mission, it gives credibility to the agency and what we are doing,” Baetzhold said. “I think most of our guests very appreciative of what goes on here.”
MORE WORK TO DO
So what’s next for Heart, Love & Soul?
Baetzhold said visitation numbers show the need for the organization’s service are on the rise in the community. He said demand for food through the pantry rose 40 percent last year and he expects the number will continue to grow as the year progresses.
He said part of the reason has to do with current economic conditions and the federal government’s decision to lower aid offered to individuals and families under the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. While SNAP benefits, more commonly known as food stamps, were increased during the COVID pandemic, the increased aid is scheduled to end next month.
“I think it’s an indication of the larger economic environment with inflation,” Baetzhold said, referring to demand for food and other services. “We’re thinking that the numbers in 2023 are going to be high as well or higher than last year.”
As they continue to work to address the needs of the community, Baetzhold said leaders at Heart, Love and Soul are considering renovating the original section of the Ontario Avenue building. Part of the planned renovation would involve a full redesign of the food pantry to make it look and feel more like a traditional super market.
“It’s going to have more of a market feel,” he said. “There’s going to be like a big store front window and some aisles that people can go around just like in a grocery store.”
The organization is also currently working on the development of a community garden across the street from the Ontario Avenue building. The garden, which would include walking paths, has already been designed by a professional landscape designer.
Overall, Baetzhold said he wants Heart, Love and Soul to continue to do what it has done for decades — provide spaces where people don’t just come to get services but were they are also able, as Brosmer was fond of saying during her tenure as director, to reaffirm their own dignity.
“That was important to us,” Baetzhold said. “I want to continue that and create a space that reflects that human dignity but we also want to reflect something different in terms of what perceive in our guests.”
Other than projects, Baetzhold said he wants to continue to move Heart, Love & Soul in the same direction it’s been going for the past four decades by continuing to focus on the core mission of helping nourish residents in need, heart, body and soul.
“We want to create a space where people believe they can succeed. We believe they can succeed,” he said. “We want to send a different message and I think there’s a risk in this work to get grounded and rooted in the crisis response and to stop there. We want to be trying to walk along with people to get them into more stable situations, whatever that might be for them.”
Source: Niagara Gazette