Food is sorted and distributed April 3, 2020, at Guadalupe Social Services Food Pantry in Immokalee, a program of Catholic Charities Diocese of Venice Inc. Below, pallets of water in Fort Myers are just some of the items being delivered to Catholic Charities food pantries across the Diocese of Venice. (BOB REDDY | FC)

Demand on Catholic Charities skyrockets

Immokalee  |  Vania Vasquez appeared at the office of Guadalupe Social Services in Immokalee hoping to get some food for her family.

Joined by her daughter, Liliana, Vasquez was happy when the workers presented her with two large bags of dry goods, and other bags with fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy products, breads and sweets.

“Thank you,” Vania said with a gracious smile to the Catholic Charities workers who were busy on April 3, 2020, handing out food to needy families. “This means so much to my family. Times are very difficult.”

Those kinds words have been echoing across the region as Catholic Charities Diocese of Venice Inc. has seen a massive increase in demand for services resulting from sudden layoffs from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Catholic Charities has put its resources and focus into the critical needs of providing food, financial assistance and tele-mental health counseling.

Philomena Pereira, CEO of Catholic Charities Diocese of Venice Inc., said the newly established regional toll-free numbers will better streamline the requests for help, often from increasingly desperate people.

“The numbers are very high and going up every day,” Pereira said. “The tenacity of our staff who are working on the front lines is amazing as they help lighten the burden of our brothers and sisters in Christ who are most in need. I know that God is watching over us.”

Food distribution points in Naples, Fort Myers, Bonita Springs and Immokalee have had huge demand with staff putting bags of food into the trunks of thousands of vehicles, all while maintaining appropriate social distancing.

As the state order to stay home expanded beginning April 3, 2020, Pereira said more and more people will lose work and the requests for food will transition into more families desperate for financial assistance. Compounding the problem is that many of the neediest people Catholic Charities assists each year did not have a financial cushion to fall back upon before the pandemic crisis started.

Catholic Charities has long-provided assistance to individuals and families for emergency medicals bills, rent and mortgage payments and utilities. However, the pandemic crisis is creating demand from people who would not normally need assistance.

“You have some families with both wage earners furloughed, laid off, fewer hours, or maybe one needs to stay home with school-aged children,” she explained. “That was just the first wave of people who lost jobs and they have no idea when work will be available again. Catholic Charities is in this for the long haul. We will be there.”

Peggy Rodriguez, the program director of Guadalupe Social Services, said there have been many people who wish to volunteer, but a system to ensure the safety of staff, volunteers and clients is still being worked out.

“The way people can help is to send a check, any amount will help, because the need is great and every dollar adds up to make the difference in the lives of the children, families and individuals who seek assistance from Catholic Charities,” Rodriguez said.