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Reaching out to fight rural poverty

It's not the expected conversation while sharing a meal for the first time. "I think people who are living in poverty are stereotyped," said Maria Knickerbocker, a social worker with the Rural Outreach Center.

The center draws about 100 people to the free meal on the last Wednesday of every month at the South Wales Community Center. It's one of the ways the Rural Outreach Center, also known as the ROC, stays connected with a scattered population, often living in poverty in the rural areas of Southern Erie County and Northern Cattaraugus County.

"We shouldn't just be about giving people a hand out. If we're going to solve poverty, one person at a time, it's going to take a unified, intensive, intentional long- term commitment to people," said Frank Cerny, executive director of the ROC, and pastor of the Pathways Christian Fellowship.

Credit photo from Jay Moran
ROC social worker Maria Knickerbocker: "I think people who are living in poverty are stereotyped."

Cerny believes a congregation needs have an active mission.  In this case, the mission is battling poverty.

"I don't think we're any position to judge until we're really able to walk in somebody's shoes.," said the ROC's social worker Maria Knickerbocker.  "In order to really help someone, you have to be willing to step in their shoes and really listen to them."

She introduces me to Kayla Martinez. Just 25 years old, Martinez is married with a four-year-old daughter.

"I was struggling for awhile. I had a few health problems, so I had lost my job," recounted Martinez, who has since gained employment in home health care, using a connection developed through the ROC.

She first encountered the ROC when her young family moved into an apartment with no furniture or appliances. Renting those items offered one option, one that she had already endured.

"It was like we weren't getting anywhere. You would make a little bit of a payment and it's like the little bit that you paid, the more you owe."

Credit photo from Jay Moran
Kayla Martinez says she found her current job through a connection at the ROC.

Her landlord put her in touch with the New Paths Redistribution Center. Another service of the ROC, the Redistribution Center sells mostly second hand furniture.

It's priced on a sliding scale, Cerny said, providing customers with what he hopes will be the first in a series of important financial decisions.

"You're taking that worry out of furniture and starting them on a process of cash reserve. How powerful is that?"

Ask Frank Cerny about why he started the Rural Outreach Center, he’ll supply a one-word answer: God.

He pursued that path after retiring as a physiologist where he developed analytical skills he puts to use as his organization reaches out to those living in rural poverty.

"Because the centralization of services is critical to solving poverty. If you think you're going to solve poverty by doing one thing and then hoping they're going to find something they need, you're absolutely wrong," Cerny said. 

Credit photo from Jay Moran
A retired physiologist, Frank Cerny is pastor of Pathways Christian Fellowship and executive director of the Rural Outreach Center.

"So, it's  the wraparound, centralized services that is going to solve poverty."

The ROC offers many services, including community meals, redistribution center, health clinics, diabetes education and youth reading program.

The center’s reported budget for 2014 was just over $100,000, all developed through grants and private donations.

Crystal Phillips is now 34. She recalls a fateful decision late in her senior year at Pioneer High School. That’s when, she says, she decided to quit high school.
"I wish I had graduated. Then, I could be doing another step in my life rather than backtracking."
Crystal says she’s now close to earning a diploma but she has other obstacles ahead.

With no driver’s license she depends on friends and family for transportation, including the long trek to Olean to deal with an array of medical issues. She’s had four children; one was adopted, two are in her custody after lengthy legal battles.

Credit photo from Jay Moran
Crystal Phillips with daughter Chayenne. "We see a brighter future."

A product herself of foster homes, Crystal shares her story while making no excuses.  Alcohol, she admits, was a major demon, one that she has now avoided for many years. After getting her diploma, she expects to work in home health care, courtesy of a connection made at the Rural Outreach Center.
"We love going to church on Sundays. My kids love it. And, I think, we see a brighter future."


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Jay joined Buffalo Toronto Public Media in 2008 and has been local host for NPR's "Morning Edition" ever since. In June, 2022, he was named one of the co-hosts of WBFO's "Buffalo, What's Next."

A graduate of St. Mary's of the Lake School, St. Francis High School and Buffalo State College, Jay has worked most of his professional career in Buffalo. Outside of public media, he continues in longstanding roles as the public address announcer for the Buffalo Sabres of the National Hockey League and as play-by-play voice of Canisius College basketball.