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Sisters of St. Joseph Neighborhood Network

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Whether it’s higher employee retention, increased productivity or higher morale, research shows there are real benefits to volunteerism when it is incorporated into a company’s work culture. Here, Heather May Caspar, MPA, executive director of the Sisters of St. Joseph Neighborhood Network (SSJNN), talks about the importance of volunteering to her own organization — and others — and why employers should consider getting involved.

The Sisters of St. Joseph Neighborhood Network, sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Northwestern Pennsylvania, has been dedicated to serving the needs of Erie’s Little Italy and revitalizing the neighborhood since 2000. Tell us how the organization got its start.

In the late 1990s, the Sisters of St. Joseph running Saint Vincent hospital commissioned a study of the surrounding neighborhoods,

assessing various social determinants of health. Little Italy needed a lot of love, and two Sisters spent a year knocking on every door, asking how they could help. Food insecurity topped the list, so these Sisters asked the families at

St. Paul’s RC church if they’d help run a weekly soup kitchen meal. That was the very first SSJNN program, and 22 years later, a couple of SSJNN staff and a lot of volunteers still serve a hot meal every Monday at St. Paul’s.

Tell us about the types of programs available through SSJNN.

Our programs and our footprint have grown! We now serve neighborhoods right across Erie, from Cranberry Street to East Ave. Our food programs have (literally) blossomed into six gardens, two orchards, one urban farm, and the Little Italy Farmers Market that runs every Monday, June through September.

Our revitalization programs demolish blight, rehabilitate homes, create new parks and green spaces, and install public art. We have a BIG bicycle program that recycles bikes, fixing and giving them away to folks in need. And our Genesis housing program provides a pathway for first-time home buyers. We also have a great, first job program for young teens, academic tutoring, after-school enrichment activities, and mentoring. Most importantly, we form strong relationships with our neighbors.

Every program is born from direct needs as expressed by our neighbors.

We know volunteering can have a positive impact on individuals and organizations. Tell us what you’ve seen at SSJNN.

I sometimes say SSJNN has just a small staff, but a small army of volunteers. We could not get our work done without them. That’s not platitude. We tried it. When COVID first shut everything down and we couldn’t ensure their safety, we closed non-essential programs and our 10 staff soldiered through without volunteers, handling as much as we could. It was not pretty, and it’s a wonder we still like each other. I say that in jest because our staff is amazing. But, when we’re cruising along with our 300-plus volunteers, anything is possible.

Our volunteers join us for so many reasons. Some say volunteering helps them stay active after retirement and feel ‘relevant.’ Some help through their church or social organization or a workplace program. Many are simply the kind of folks who see people in need and feel a strong calling to make a real difference in the lives of others.

Why should employers consider getting involved in volunteer efforts?

There are the usual — and important — elements of corporate social responsibility, and the idea of fostering the communities where employees live or work. But plenty of mutually beneficial reasons drive employers to create incentivized volunteer programs. A simple litter clean-up helps employees get to know Erie’s neighborhoods as more than

just a work destination, and they feel more at home and part of something bigger than an eight-hour shift. We’ve had teams spend an afternoon dismantling and cleaning bicycle parts or prepping garden beds. These shared experiences allow unique skills, interests, and sometimes new leaders to emerge within a team. And there’s always lots of laughter.

What are some of SSJNN’s big plans for 2022?

This summer, three new murals are going to be show-stoppers. Two will frame the intersection of Peach and 26th Streets, right at the top of the historic Federal Hill neighborhood. The third mural will be incredibly special for the Little Italy neighborhood, as it will be created over the course of three weeks with community painting sessions (all are invited!) and installed at Odessa’s Place, right beside International Bakery. This mural will include a wayfinding map key providing a starting point for garden and art and informational history walks throughout historic Little Italy. And, of course, we’re still serving weekly meals at St. Paul’s and hosting a dozen farmers at the Little Italy Farmers Market all summer!

We’re looking forward to your presentation at the MBA’s IMPACT & Volunteer Fair on July 21 in Erie. Why do you believe employers should attend?

There is literally no easier way for an employer to find out about the many volunteer opportunities out there. Just waiting for you!

What are some other ways to connect with SSJNN?

Check out our website, www.SSJNN.org. Have a novel idea for a neighborhood-based volunteer project? We are IN. We are easy to find on Facebook and Instagram, and we love posting pictures of the great work our volunteers do.