By Jason Klaiber
By caring for those living in a local pocket of poverty through the work of her growing outreach ministry, Sheila Austin has made sure to put her Catholic faith into action, but first came the process of reconnecting with that belief system.
Slightly past the turn of the century, the Syracuse resident found herself going through a clear transitional point. Though she enjoyed filling out her year with golfing, skiing and traveling, she began to feel that there was still something missing.
Amid her journey to discover why that was, Austin realized that she had drifted away from religion over the course of the prior 25 years and had not adequately expressed a sense of gratitude for the many blessings in her life.
That led her to slip in the door of the St. James Roman Catholic Church on South Salina Street to recapture a connection to the gospels. There she would end up meeting Father John Manno, a new arrival who implored the congregation to bring the message of Jesus Christ to people outside the church’s walls.
At the time, Austin informed the pastor that she and fellow parishioners had made a routine of giving out sandwiches to the homeless men who stayed at the Oxford Street Inn, a Catholic Charities shelter known affectionately as “The Ox.” That site was open unconditionally to struggling individuals in need of a place to sleep overnight.
Manno, described as a “no-nonsense kind of guy,” responded by asking Austin to tell him about the men she met through that effort, at which point she noticed that she was not engaging in face-to-face contact with them, having only put the sandwiches out for pickup instead of handing them to each visitor directly.
“We were completely disconnected, and that hit me like a ton of bricks,” Austin said. “We were missing that link about providing services and outreach without the relationship with the people on the other end.”
She said that moment springboarded the creation within that calendar year of Road to Emmaus Ministry of Syracuse, Inc., the faith-centered community service organization she now helms as executive director.
“All of a sudden things were starting to take form and I realized what I had not been attentive to,” Austin said. “That’s where it began—literally with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”
She and a group of recruited volunteers began delivering the sandwiches to the men, those regular stops serving to broaden her familiarity with the South Side and its residents on the peripheries.
Some time later, in order to witness the challenges the men would face outside the shelter between 7 in the morning and the strike of 5 in the evening when they were allowed to come back, Austin drove around to see where they dispersed and how they managed to either escape the winter cold or cool off in the summertime heat.
Subsequently, the ministry added to the equation a van stocked with everything from clothing like socks and gloves to canteens of coffee and soup, all of it reserved for the various encampments in town.
Looking for a more concrete solution, Austin and Manno conjured up the idea that the ministry should run a place of hospitality of its own separate from the confines of St. James. However, the financial and logistical aspects were a ways from being worked out and so it became a wishlist item.
After Manno was reassigned to another parish, a volunteer from a different church expressed interest in establishing a soup kitchen, a layout Austin immediately latched onto. With that, Emmaus Ministry incorporated into a 501(c)(3) in 2016 and opened up an outreach center at 4335 S. Salina St. the following year.
Two years later, because space to complete their faith-based duties had become limited, the board for the ministry started to explore the possibility of finding a larger facility. The perfect choice for the upgrade wound up being the building at 127 E. Glen Ave. that formerly housed administrative support offices for an operating engineers union.
The building, which is twice the size of the original South Salina Street location, was donated to the inner city ministry out of admiration for its work in the neighborhood. It was gutted, turned into the new base of operation for the nonprofit, and fully moved into by December 2019.
Only a matter of three months later, the COVID pandemic hit and the need for food in the nearby community “skyrocketed” as Austin put it. With shutdowns and social distancing guidelines in place, the way the ministry provided food to others also changed in that a shift was made from seated, in-house meals to a takeout process accounting for the numbers of people per household.
Austin said she’s pleased and proud that Emmaus can relieve the stress of putting food on the table for people in the vicinity of the ministry. The 13205 zip code the ministry assists, she notes, is one of the highest-ranking for childhood poverty in the United States and one of the worst for overall poverty in Onondaga County.
“If people aren’t getting fed, they really can’t do much of anything else,” Austin said.
Kicking it up a notch compared to the 2019 total of 12,000 free meals given out, the ministry provided about 34,000 meals in 2020, around 56,000 in 2021 and over 66,000 this past year—counts that according to Austin speak to the growth of Emmaus’ ability to serve and also to the dire conditions in the community surrounding the center.
Roughly 14 years after its founding, Emmaus Ministry’s day-to-day outreach component remains intact with not only handouts of hot meals six days a week but also grocery bag distributions on the third Wednesday of every month and offerings of services like haircuts, toenail clippings and the smoothening of calluses.
Using food as the jumping-off point, the charitable organization also began tackling the other social obstacles troubling its guests that had left them feeling less dignified and valued than they could be. For the sake of convenience, the ministry locked these extra services into the 11 a.m.-to-noon time slot Mondays through Saturdays when its meals are served by volunteers.
The additional services include bimonthly legal advice concerning custody, eviction and other topics courtesy of the Volunteer Lawyers Project of CNY, Inc.; a family program that provided at-home activity packs during the height of quarantining; and vision and hearing screenings handled by Aurora of Central New York, Inc.
A registered nurse, Austin at one point conducted an informal survey of Emmaus’ guests to learn whether they had insurance, where they received their health-related care, and when their most recent dental appointment was. She learned that many didn’t have proper access, while some experienced difficulties covering copays or relying on transportation for medical or dental visits. Her research also revealed that some hadn’t been to a dentist in a decade or more.
With Austin’s lead, St. Marianne Cope Health Services was born in the spring of 2022 as a free dental clinic located diagonal to the back door of the current Emmaus center in the original, temporarily unused outreach building on South Salina. The reconfigured space contains two dental suites, a hygienist suite, a sterilization area, a front reception section and three medical exam rooms for when it doubles as an operational medical clinic, which should be in the late spring or early this approaching summer, Austin hopes.
The new clinic is taking in volunteers in both capacities who hail from all over the Syracuse area. In August, it began seeing its first patients on the dentistry side.
“Many are young dentists in practice,” Austin said. “It’s phenomenal because they’re busy, they’ve got families and they’re still willing to come and give of themselves.”
The reasons for stopping in usually amount to more than just a cleaning. In certain cases, the issues are tooth abscesses worsened by roadblocks in attaining antibiotics, paying for appointments or getting past wait times. Though extractions happen, the volunteer dentists have been trying to save teeth whenever possible, especially ones in the front of the mouth so guests can maintain their smiles.
“The impact we’re having on people who live in this community is unspeakable, and the response that we have from our guests is genuine gratitude and joy,” Austin said. “We really are an extension of family here, on both sides.”
Emmaus Ministry has eight part-time staff members, a network of approximately 60 volunteers and a hefty list of collaborators from churches and fraternal organizations to local schools.
“It draws volunteers who have a like mind and a like heart,” Austin said. “They don’t have to all be Catholic, but they’re people of faith and they’re responding to an inherent desire they have to give back because of the blessings that they’ve experienced in their lives.”
Austin doesn’t hesitate to say that her own return to her faith has been life-altering, and favorably so.
“I am not the same person I was 15 years ago,” Austin said. “My faith has made me more open, more willing to see the other person in need, and comfortable enough to want to relate to them and be a part of their lives.”
For more information on Sheila Austin’s organization, visit emmausministry.org