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Families at heart of its mission

  • Susan Mareneck, director of the Montague Catholic Social Ministries in Turners Falls, holds Alex Letourneau while Amarilys Ocasio and her 5-year-old daughter, Jasmine Morales, get in on the picture on Wednesday. Maya Tzoc, 2, is in front looking back. Recorder/Paul Franz

    Susan Mareneck, director of the Montague Catholic Social Ministries in Turners Falls, holds Alex Letourneau while Amarilys Ocasio and her 5-year-old daughter, Jasmine Morales, get in on the picture on Wednesday. Maya Tzoc, 2, is in front looking back. Recorder/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »

  • Susan Mareneck of the Montague Catholic Social Ministries. Recorder/Paul Franz

    Susan Mareneck of the Montague Catholic Social Ministries. Recorder/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »

  • Cindy Skelly, Family Support Coordinator at the Montague Catholic Social Ministries in Turners Falls, talks with Amarilys Ocasio about getting her school records.  Recorder/Paul Franz

    Cindy Skelly, Family Support Coordinator at the Montague Catholic Social Ministries in Turners Falls, talks with Amarilys Ocasio about getting her school records. Recorder/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »

  • Susan Mareneck, director of the Montague Catholic Social Ministries in Turners Falls, holds Alex Letourneau while Amarilys Ocasio and her 5-year-old daughter, Jasmine Morales, get in on the picture on Wednesday. Maya Tzoc, 2, is in front looking back. Recorder/Paul Franz
  • Susan Mareneck of the Montague Catholic Social Ministries. Recorder/Paul Franz
  • Cindy Skelly, Family Support Coordinator at the Montague Catholic Social Ministries in Turners Falls, talks with Amarilys Ocasio about getting her school records.  Recorder/Paul Franz

MONTAGUE — Montague Catholic Social Ministries, this year, celebrates two decades of fighting to strengthen families and prevent domestic violence, years that have seen an expanding role for what began as a safe play group in the basement of St. Anne’s church.

This year, the program celebrates and prepares for the future with a fundraising campaign.

“We were founded 20 years ago, in 1994, specifically in response to the domestic violence situation in Turners Falls,” said Director Susan Mareneck. “I think in 1994, Turners Falls had the highest per-capita rate of domestic violence in the state.”

The Rev. Stanley Aksamit of Our Lady of Peace Parish said the effort was intended as an expansion of the parish into the community, with the goal of helping others to help themselves in response to poverty and violence in town.

“Father (Roland) Renaud and I would kind of walk through the downtown and talk with people; and the Strathmore Paper Mill was closing at that time, there were problems of domestic violence, people didn’t feel safe,” Aksamit said.

Aksamit and Renaud, then co-pastors of Our Lady of Peace and St. Anne’s in Turners Falls and Sacred Heart in Greenfield, reached out to religious orders in the area and the Sisters of St. Joseph sent members to live in St. Anne’s rectory and begin a play group in the basement of the now-closed church.

The play group continues — now twice a week with a Spanish-language group once a month. Also, an emergency basic needs program offering food, clothing, help with utility bills and housing now operates alongside the Family Resource Center and Women’s Resource Center offering classes, support groups, and a place for families to spend time together. All programs are run out of the group’s offices at the corner of Avenue A and Third Street. The Family Resource Center is a room filled with toys, the Women’s Resource Center a room filled with books, three very old computers, knitting supplies and a central table.

A weekly parent-to-parent support group offers a free dinner, then child care while parents meet. From that group came what Mareneck describes as something of a watershed moment: A father suggested starting a fathers support group, expecting it might draw more men than the primarily women’s group meeting in the women’s resource center. He did so, and the group now counts father’s from the immediate community as well as inmates from the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office’s Kimball House re-entry program and minimum security preparing to return to the community.

That father’s idea brought the realization that Montague Catholic Social Ministries had been mostly ignoring an important part of the equation, Mareneck said.

“I think it wasn’t just true of us, I think it was true of the whole domestic violence effort for 30 years; it was about sort of pulling down the curtain — keep the bad old men out here and keep the women and children safe over here, protect them — but that didn’t work because the women got protected in the moment and then they went right back into their lives,” Mareneck said.

Mareneck, who has been with the program since 2009, sees ending domestic violence as the original mission, and the current mission even as the ministries evolved to encompass all manner of social services.

“What it’s grown into really has been prevention. Most of our programs are, we hope, building protective factors for families,” Mareneck said. Programs are designed to build social connection and resilience — programs like the English as a second language classes the center hosts — teach parents about the child development and give the space to think about how they were raised and what they need to be better parents, Mareneck said.

“All our programs are focused on those things, the original sort of Catholic social justice philosophy is rather than giving fish, teaching people to fish,” Mareneck said.

One thing the center doesn’t hold is any overt religious display, beyond the name. Mareneck said the idea is to value the spirit of Catholicism over its signs and symbols.

The English classes are a relatively new element, founded in partnership with the Center for New Americans. Mareneck said Spanish-speaking women in the community said they were kept from classes in Greenfield by lack of transportation, classes during work hours and the need for child care, so the ministries provided the space and the childcare component and the Center for New Americans offered evening classes that have proven to be among the best attended in the area. Mareneck points to this as an illustration of the program’s emphasis on listening to people and adapting to their needs, an emphasis that continues to drive the program’s evolution.

Mareneck doesn’t know exactly what the future will hold. Goals include sending women to participate in a community farming program at Greenfield Community College.

“Anything we can do to help families get on and stay on their feet is, I think, the direction for the future,” Mareneck said.

The program is planning for that future with a fund drive beginning this month. MCSM is funded primarily through grants and foundations, Mareneck said, with a growing number of individual donations and a contract with the Department of Children and Families, with which the MCSM staff work as advocates for families caught up in the system.

The goal of the current campaign is to raise $20,000 by June 24, when MCSM hopes to hold a block party on Avenue A to celebrate the campaign and their 20 years in the community, details to be determined. Donations can be sent to PO Box 792, Turners Falls MA, 01376, or contact Mareneck at 413-863-4804, ext. 1001. Information and schedules of MCSM-hosted programs can be found online at www.mcsmcommunity.org, or in the office at 43 Third St.

You can reach Chris Curtis at: ccurtis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 257

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