Christian service collaboration between 10 parishes celebrates 15 years helping those in dire straits

PONTIAC — Fifteen years ago, the 10 parishes of the Pontiac Area Vicariate saw the great need that existed in the heart of their community. Living among the poorest of the poor, it was an almost daily occurrence to find someone in need of food, shelter, clothing and other basic necessities. 

The epicenter of wealthy Oakland County, Pontiac may be geographically close to its more affluent neighbors in West Bloomfield, Birmingham and Rochester Hills, but economically, the city couldn't be further apart. 

Pontiac is a city with great needs. It’s long been the center of poverty in one of America’s wealthiest counties, a fact that led to the creation of the Catholic Community Response Team (CCRT) in 2004. 

“You see the basic inequity,” said Barbara Williams, program director for CCRT who's been involved in the nonprofit since its inception. “It’s about sharing the wealth that’s around Pontiac. It’s about living out the Gospel values of faith, friendship and service.”

Barbara Williams, director of the Catholic Community Response Team, meets with a client in her office. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

The Catholic Community Response Team is a collaborative ministry of the vicariate's parishes, which include Christ the Redeemer in Orion Township, St. Joseph in Lake Orion, St. Damien of Molokai in Pontiac, Sacred Heart and St. John Fisher in Auburn Hills, St. Benedict in Waterford, St. Andrew in Rochester, and St. Irenaeus, St. Mary of the Hills and St. Paul Albanian in Rochester Hills.

In 15 years, the organization hasn't grown much in terms of staff. But that's a good thing. 

“We started with two part-timers and two volunteers,” Williams said. “Now, we have three part-timers and 150 volunteers.” 

Joan Stelzer, one of those volunteers, is amazed when she thinks about all the Catholic Community Response Team has accomplished. 

“It’s been growing like crazy. The lines are so long, the landlord asked us to do things by appointment,” Stelzer said. “Every year, we have thousands of unique clients. We help people manage their lives better.” 

Volunteers receive dozens of phone calls, and about 10 appointments, every day. The organization provides help with shelter and food, as well as assistance for people to avoid eviction and utility shutoffs, along with security deposits, clothing, personal items and other forms of aid at its location on Franklin Boulevard near the Pontiac Housing Commission. 

Young mothers are some of the clients who turn to the Catholic Community Response Team for help. 

When the organization was created, St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Pontiac (which later merged to become St. Damien of Molokai) was fielding most of the requests from the community's neediest families and wasn't able to keep up. 

“There are a lot of people who need help,” Williams said.

Williams sees the work of the 10 parishes as inspiration for the type of inter-parish collaboration that could make a difference across the region. 

“I thought it could be modeled across Metro Detroit,” Williams said. “Take 10 parishes and have them work together to help. Whatever the emergency is, that's where we help.”

April Bonner-Archer of Pontiac was in a desperate situation during the harshest weeks of this past winter. A victim of domestic violence who had spent time in and out of shelters in Pontiac, she had nowhere to go as the temperatures plunged below zero during February's polar vortex. 

“Nobody but the Catholic Community Response Team was willing to help,” Bonner-Archer said. 

The nonprofit provided $500 for a security deposit for an apartment for her and her 16-year-old son. That money, along with her income tax return, allowed her to afford a new place to live. 

“By the skin of our teeth, we had a place to stay,” Bonner-Archer said. 

But that was only the beginning of CCRT’s help, as volunteers also furnished her new apartment — a miracle to Bonner-Archer.

“It was like the grace and breath of God came into my life. It was unbelievable,” she said. “They’re such a giving force. I will always sing the praises of the Catholic Church, and CCRT.”

Now, her situation has improved. She’s getting more hours at work. “We’re barely making it, but we’re making it,” she said. 

Barbara Williams sits among the clothes and personal items that are donated, sorted and delivered by hundreds of volunteers with the Catholic Community Response Team in Pontiac. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

Helping people stay in their homes builds stronger communities, Williams argues. In 2018 alone, the Catholic Community Response Team helped nearly 400 people avoid eviction. The organization helped hundreds more with food, security deposits, rides to work, and much more. 

“Fifty percent of our clients don’t have cars,” Williams said. 

CCRT also helped more than 300 children receive school uniforms, and for Thanksgiving, 1,300 received dinners courtesy of the organization's volunteers. 

Those who volunteer on a regular basis include the “movers and shakers” — a group of retired volunteers who deliver furniture and necessities to residents in need — and the “miracle workers” — retired women who sort, display and sell donated items to raise money for the organization's efforts.

Williams knows well the impact an organization like CCRT can have on a struggling person, or family. Growing up, her family struggled, but received help. 

“My dad was paralyzed from the neck down with polio,” Williams said. “People reached out and helped us. Goodfellows brought us Christmas gifts. I’ve never forgotten what it’s like to struggle.”

Helping people less fortunate can be a reward in itself, Williams said. 

“The gift is in the receipt,” Williams said. “You know you’re doing the right thing. You get back so much more than you give. People are very grateful. Some want to hug you.” 

Stelzer feels the impact, as well, and knows it could just as easily be her struggling to get by.

Blessing bags for the areas homeless line the shelves at the nonprofit's Pontiac facility. (Photos by Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)
A young girl smiles during a visit to the CCRT headquarters with her mom.

“It’s definitely very fulfilling. In the same sense, I’m kind of humbled. I’m not that special to say that I’m immune to the situation,” Stelzer said. “I’m really touched by their situations. My life had never intersected with people who have such needs. It’s helped me appreciate everything I have, and makes me so aware. I have a much better appreciation for them.”

Another volunteer, Laura Pangori, says seeing the reaction from those who find help through the Catholic Community Response Team makes the volunteers want to do even more. 

“It’s heartwarming,” Pangori said. “Sometimes it’s giving a toothbrush, and they say thank you, and you see how grateful they are. It’s very humbling.”

In celebration of its 15th anniversary, the Catholic Community Response Team held a gala in April to raise funds and to thank its volunteers. 

“Anything we get goes to our clients,” says Pangori, who served as chairperson for the April 11 event. “It’s part of who we are as Catholics. It’s seeing the face of Christ in everybody.”

Get involved

To volunteer your time, talent or treasure to the efforts of the Pontiac Area Vicariate's Catholic Community Response Team, call (248) 499-9621 or visit the organization's website or Facebook page.