Wendy Klesch, Special to The Catholic Virginian
The familiar saying, “It takes a village,” becomes more than a metaphor at Oasis Social Ministry in Portsmouth.
With a soup kitchen open every day of the year, a food pantry that provided groceries to 9,000 people last year, a thrift shop, a senior grocery delivery program, medical services, and a garden, the ministry is a village in itself, an oasis of hope that has been serving the people of Portsmouth, Western Chesapeake and Northern Suffolk for more than 45 years.
The ministry began in 1970, when parishioners from St. Paul Parish, Portsmouth, began handing out peanut butter sandwiches to the homeless who gathered around the church after Mass. Soon, they were joined by volunteers from Church of the Resurrection and Holy Angels, Portsmouth, and St. Mary and St. Therese, Chesapeake. Today, Oasis has grown into an organization of 1,600 volunteers of all backgrounds and faith traditions.
“We are a conduit for the community’s generosity — for their good hearts,” explained Jo-Anne Roisen, the ministry’s director.
On one Wednesday, the cloudless sky of a quiet autumn morning belies the hum of activity behind the doors of the brick building off of High Street. Kitchens, intake office, thrift shop and food pantry are already in full swing.
Before leaving her office and heading to the thrift shop, Roisen picks up a toy car with oversized wheels from a table in the corner.
“We have a lot of families who come in, so we try to keep toys on hand,” she said. “It’s cheered up a lot of children.”
Thrift shop generates revenue
At the thrift shop, Irene Terry, a parishioner at Church of the Resurrection, sorts through boxes of donated items.
“A lot of my friends from Resurrection were working in the kitchen,” she said. “But since they were full, I decided to come over here. I like to come in early, when it’s peaceful, and get things organized.”
Although the shop, which is open five days a week, donates clothing and household goods to those who qualify, it is also open to the public. Income generated by bargain-hunting shoppers helps support the ministry.
Next door to the thrift shop, volunteers in the food pantry pull boxes and cans off shelves, packing bags for the ministry’s Senior Grocery Delivery Program, which serves 96 homebound seniors. The shelves, however, are half-empty: only four boxes of cereal remain, and the pantry is out of peanut butter.
“Summer was a busy time for us,” Roisen said. “When school is out, the children don’t have access to school breakfast and lunch programs. And then back-to-school time can also be rough for parents, as they have to buy clothes and school supplies.”
On this day, the air conditioning isn’t working, and only large fans circulate the air. Despite this, maintenance manager Karstan Stora sails by, unperturbed, a long box perched on his shoulder.
“He’s one of our most dedicated workers,” Roisen said. “I don’t know what we would do without him.”
‘Everyone works together’
As volunteers in the pantry sort groceries, in the nearby kitchen another group is preparing for the lunch crowd. There, Barbara Price of St. Mary, Chesapeake, chops the ends off of sugar snap peas and shares the keys to a successful kitchen.
“Everyone here works together,” she said. “There aren’t any tasks that any of us won’t do.”
She and Donna Furbish of St. Therese, Chesapeake, fill a tub with a medley of yellow, orange and green vegetables, while at the stove volunteers John Cutrone and Joe Mento help kitchen manager Dwayne Burrell prepare platters of ribs.
Meanwhile, Bud Bovee of Church of the Resurrection packs bagged lunches to be taken over to young mothers and fathers participating in a parenting class to be held at the Ports-mouth Social Services building across the street. The volunteers explain that the ministry tries to help other organizations whenever possible.
Just as an actual oasis is fed by underground rivers to bring life to the desert, Oasis Ministry seeks support wherever it can, and then works to assist others. The five founding Catholic parishes, as well as other religious groups, provide volunteers, food donations and financial support.
MASS (Minority AIDS Support Services) provides free HIV testing at Oasis every Wednesday. And, as partners with the Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia, the ministry is a distribution point for USDA food.
The larger community helps as well. Local businesses hold imaginative fundraisers — from luaus to car shows — and each fall the Portsmouth Public Library system sponsors a Food for Fines drive, allowing patrons to bring in food to donate to Oasis in lieu of their late fees.
“The sheriff’s office delivers all of it on one of the landscaping trucks,” Roisen said with a laugh.
“Working here, I get to see God’s unconditional love every day,” she said. “People walk in every day and see that someone cares. We really try to work with what we have, and, somehow, it all works out.”
In the reception area, a couple waits with an infant in a stroller and a small boy. The toy car that Roisen has been carrying has found a child at last.
“Would you like this car?” she asks. The small boy turns and solemnly nods.
“What do you say?” asks his father. “Thank you!” he sings out, as he begins gently rolling the large wheels over the small hills of the waiting room chairs.
Somehow, it all works out.