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Miriam Mahan
Miriam Mahan

Social service pioneers retire in St. Charles County

By: Brian Flinchpaugh


Miriam Mahan, the long-time executive director and guiding force behind Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service, retired on July 26 – sort of.

“I cannot imagine sitting and watching television,” said Mahan said. After more than 30 years at her post, Mahan still has an office at the care service headquarters in St. Peters and will continue as a policy and social justice advocate. The care service is one of the largest social service agencies in St. Charles, Lincoln and Warren counties. Jack Lipin, former director of finance and the service and business director at Good Shepard Children and Family Services, is now its executive director.

“I will have to fade away,” Mahan said recently in an interview, but there is some doubt about the fading part.

Mary Hutchison, executive director for the St. Charles County Community Council, an umbrella group for social services in the county, also isn’t expected to retire quietly, though her day as the head of the agency, which works with more than 180 nonprofit and social service agencies, are numbered. She plans to stay on as executive director until the end of this year.

Still, she says there is family in Tucson, Arizona, and her children to help. She and her husband have two children.

“There are so many people like me that are working full-time, that sandwich generation, that are trying to care for aging parents,” she said. Hutchison has worked at the agency for 12 years.

The retirements of Hutchison and Mahan are significant, as both played a major role in laying the foundation for how the St. Charles County community helps people who are poor, old, young, hungry or sick. In some ways, the women represent different eras and threads of thinking on how to address social service issues – although many of those threads have merged as time has gone on.

They agree on many things including that even in St. Charles County – with a population close to 400,000 and one of the most prosperous in Missouri – poverty, social problems and calls for help exist and aren’t going away. Efforts to combat those issues have to evolve, they say.

“Ten years from now, we won’t be able to meet these needs if we look exactly like we do today,” Hutchison said.

While progress has been made, Mahan sees the poor becoming poorer with less access to the means to improve their lives and fewer supports.

“What happens is, as the world continues to grow and morph and change into what we know it [to be] today, the isolation of the poorest of the poor becomes greater,” Mahan said. “We say the middle class is disappearing; I say that families are disappearing.”

Our brother’s keeper

In the last 35 years, Mahan stands among the most vocal and active among a group of community activists credited with building charitable and human services efforts in St. Charles, Lincoln and Warren counties.

In 1981, she and four other volunteers with $500 in seed money were asked by the Rev. Robert Leibrecht, then pastor of Sts. Joachim and Ann Catholic Church, to start a small outreach agency. The agency was geared toward promoting social justice and feeding hungry people that were showing up on church door steps. The founders included Mahan, Shirley Petrosky, Clara Schappe, Jane Meker and Sandy Stetson.

That agency eventually became the Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service, which by some accounts provides more basic services in the three-county area than any other agency. The service, now an independent agency, has a $3 million budget and serves 5,600 people and 1,860 families, according to the agency’s 2015 annual report. Its services include feeding people through a food pantry, working with them to repair their homes, assisting them in finding jobs and paying rent and utilities, and working with families and children.

The process often involves sorting through clients with multitudes of issues – a woman without a job and living in her car with a child, a homeless family that lost their home through foreclosure, or an elderly resident who can’t pay an electric bill.

“Our strength always was our case management,” Mahan said. “We learned to put the puzzle together, we actually learned it from the American Red Cross. The American Red Cross once upon a time [had the] the greatest case workers.”

From the beginning, the care service was about inclusion – that belief that “we are all a community and we have to look after each other,” she said.

“We do believe in the gospel saying that we are all our brother’s keepers,” Mahan said. “When one is falling, the other will pick them up and on and on and on. That is the essence.”

The care service also is about access – access to health care, affordable housing, work and transportation, she said.

Mahan calls Leibrecht “a prophet.” Then adds, “He would kill me if he heard me say it.” But she said the pastor saw stark poverty and discrimination during 12 years that he spent as a missionary priest in Bolivia. It touched his heart and spurred him to establish a ministry, she said.

St. Peters seemed then and now an unlikely social justice venue. Subdivisions were sprouting in farmers’ fields and many like Mahan and her husband, Dale, who moved to St. Peters in 1974, were young parents with good jobs. Sts. Joachim and Ann was a new Roman Catholic parish serving a growing bedroom suburb.

Today, St. Charles County is among the wealthiest and fastest growing counties in Missouri with 6.1 percent of its population considered poor in 2013, compared to 13.9 percent in Missouri, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics.

But in the 1970s, options in a rapidly urbanizing area were limited for people facing setbacks and needing basic assistance.

“Literally we would pick up people and bring them to our houses and feed them,” said Mahan, who remembers being called by St. Charles police asking her to pick up a farm family who were foreclosed on and lost their land. “The need was huge.”

Slowly volunteers and local civic and governments began to network – Mahan says her work rests on the shoulders of people like Tom Cronan, an advocate for the poor; former circuit court judge Grace Nichols; Jane Crider, who helped establish mental health services and others “giants in the community” – along with area hospitals and businesses. They began to knit together a kind of safety net – an infrastructure of local social and human services.

Mahan was in the middle of much of this – a familiar face at local government and agency meetings who got to know the lay of the land as far as local politics. She also was no shrinking violet about asking for a helping hand or debating heated social and public issues.

The Lutherans and Catholics born here [in St. Peters] were very strong, very law-biding, kind and generous people, she said. “You knew the ground rules, you knew where you stood. Then you had the people who came across the bridge, they came in with issues, sometimes very racist, ‘this is not going to happen in my backyard again, we are going to build walls around St. Peters.’ You heard that.”

St. Peters Mayor Len Pagano, who was an alderman then, remembers Mahan attending aldermanic meetings in the 1980s asking for donations.

“It’s kind of a joke, but I would see you going into a local government meeting and I would make the sign of the cross,” now Mayor Pagano recalled at a July 28 Board of Aldermen meeting where Mahan was presented a resolution marking her retirement.  “I love this woman,” he said.

Awards and recognition lauding her humanitarian efforts aren’t new for Mahan.  And Pagano is not alone in his “joke.” In fact, a few local government officials have taken to calling her “sister” thinking she is a Roman Catholic nun.

Her background as well as her style are unique.  A Cuban refugee, at 69, her accent as well as attitudes from her native country remain. She came to the United States at age 12 with her brother, because her father was being held as a political prisoner by Fidel Castro’s regime.  Helping others is in her DNA.

“Our culture was very socially conscious.  That was enhanced when I came to St. Louis and I was with the Sisters of Mercy,” she said.

Mahan lived with the sisters and when she was a sophomore at Mercy High, she became a volunteer at the old St. Louis Chronic Hospital on Arsenal Street in St. Louis.  The hospital, now long closed, was where the “chronically ill” were treated and warehoused.

“When you walked into those wards, you could smell the rotting flesh,” she said.  “People were tied down with Posey belts.”  Posey belts are straps and belts designed to restrain patients.

In one bed, there was a developmentally disabled person, at another there was a mentally ill patient, at still another a woman with “what they called then a mental breakdown,” she said.  Patients were often treated “like animals.”

“That impacted me to such a level as a 14-year-old. How can this happen in this country? How can people be treated like this?” she asked, then and now. She said it was unacceptable.

“I couldn’t say someone else should do something about it, I personally had to do something about it,” she said “And that’s where the passion and fever and the fire in the belly came [from].”

Later she received her nursing degree from Barnes Hospital and served as a volunteer for a number of organizations. She has lived in the same house in St. Peters for more than 40 years and likes the area’s progress – its good roads, readily accessible health care and better schools. St. Peters has come a long way, she said.

“We have everything we could dream of here and all of these are wonderful things,” she said. “But still the poorest of the poor remain.”

Mary Hutchison

Mary Hutchison at Deaconess

An ‘organization of organizations’

Mary Hutchinson came to social services after working in the private sector and as stay-at-home mom.  The interest was sparked while working at her church, she said.

“It’s not enough to have faith, you have to have action,” Hutchison, 60, said. She has been executive director of the St. Charles County Community Council since November 2011.  She joined the council’s staff in 2004 and served as its director of volunteer programs.

The council has roots that go back more than 60 years as a nonprofit charitable organization that addressed human services, at first largely in the city of St. Charles, but the council isn’t manning soup kitchens or interviewing homeless clients. Its role is to help the organizations doing that work to partner with others to do a better job. The council functions similar in some ways to a kind of trade association – what Hutchison calls an “organization of organizations” – open to social service and human service organizations in St. Charles, Lincoln and Warren counties.

Its membership is encouraged to work together through networking, providing resources and community events. The council also embarks on initiatives that examine and collect data on poverty, hunger, homelessness and affordable housing, and it encourages volunteerism. One recent example is an ongoing initiative to place veterans and homeless men in permanent housing that Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service is spearheading.

It’s an organization that has become increasingly relevant, especially as providing human services is becoming more sophisticated and faces new pressures. Organizations have to show contributors that they are providing sustainable services, which aren’t being duplicating by other organizations at a time when money is tight.

“The burden of funding services is shifting downward to more local levels – from the federal government to the states, to the states shifting the burden to the localities and counties,” Hutchinson said. As this happen, it’s really up to local residents to decide how they are going to care for citizens who need assistance, she added.

Both Mahan and Hutchinson said there is a realization that helping people requires is a “cross-sector” effort.

Someone who arrives on the front door of a food pantry may have a myriad of other issues besides being hungry – no job, a health issue, homelessness – all issues that perpetuate a cycle of poverty. Finding solutions can involve working with the healthcare, educational, and justice systems as well as the social service network.

“Those are systems that are working together, that’s new from 12 years ago,” Hutchison said. “Now, there is a huge emphasis of breaking down those systems as silos.”

Mahan agrees. “If you’re are truly talking about systemic change, we have to break down silos,” she said. The future will require more collaborative efforts, she added.

“The old story is that if you teach people to fish they can feed themselves,” Mahan said. “That is a fallacy because you need to do more than teaching people to fish, it’s helping them develop and cultivate a community around them. You teach someone to fish, but if they continue to be isolated, then the day comes when they say ‘I don’t care anymore.’”

Hutchinson said the council educates service providers to make “that mind shift from looking at just who comes through the door to what are the needs of people in the community and how do we work together to meet those needs.” She said it’s common sense, but it does require providers to think differently, maybe give up something and partner with another organization that may do the same job better.

Technology is one way the council is helping agencies shift their thinking. In 2010, the council obtained funding for its Community Information Sharing System [CISS], a data collection system designed to assist agencies working with homeless and low-income individuals.

CISS can function as a client intake system than can eliminate paper records and allow more time for direct service to clients. Once the information is entered, other partner agencies can view it, if allowed.

People coming to several agencies don’t have go through the exhausting and time consuming process of filling out forms over and over again, and the system cuts duplicate work.  CISS also creates reports, required by state and federal officials and often demanded by funding agencies, quickly and helps the council collect data on a community level more easily.

Hutchison said the council also has created a “safe place” for providers to learn and network.

“I think we’ve strengthened relationships and built trust and that’s essential for the new ways we’re called to work together,” she said.

Changing times, shifting needs

Times change, not always for the better.

When Mahan first moved to St. Peters, there were street parties and a welcome wagon when new neighbors arrived, she recalled. But things changed.

“One of the things that happened was we got garage openers. As we drove into our driveways, we went into the garage and closed the garage door,” she said. “We didn’t stay behind and talk to our neighbors.”

Mahan said isolation from others, particularly the erosion of the family, continues to contribute to issues such as depression, domestic violence, child abuse, undiagnosed learning disorders, and lack of care of the elderly and a lack of community.

The poor are still here, often moving from one county to another, Mahan said. And new things happen.

Many middle class people in their 50s and 60s never recovered from the recession years around 2008. Mahan recalls a recent incident in which a staff member came into her office and said, “Miriam, we have nine homeless seniors that just came through within the last two weeks. What do we do?”

“These are people who never thought they would be homeless in their 70s,” Mahan said. “It [the recession] was very bad, because there are a certain percent of the population that were never able to recuperate.” Now there is a shift of people at the very bottom – not necessarily family or friends – toward living together in a communal setting because they depend on each other’s incomes, she said.

Mahan also sees the safety net, knitted together in the 1970s, that included food stamps and supplemental housing assistance going away.

“You are going to be seeing five and 10 years, you are going to see a resurfacing of the poor and this time, the poor are going to be poorer, because there is no access,” she predicted.

Mahan

Hutchison said the recession has increased awareness about societal issues, but that it is not enough.

“Most us are comfortable and live our lives,” she said. “Unless you are working directly in this field you generally are not aware of the great need.”

When asked if there was room today for others like Mahan and the four parish women who saw a need and who began feeding hungry people out of their kitchens and garages, Hutchison has no doubt that there is, but Mahan she said is special.

“Is there room and the need? Yes,” Hutchison said. “Are they out there? Yes. Is there anyone quite like Miriam? No. Will there be someone like Miriam, again? Yes.”

Of Mahan, she said, “I believe she speaks truth to power, all of these things that are important.” But she said Mahan is “born to a style of delivering services also that is going to be changing.” Organizations have to partner with others to survive, she said. “That mentality that we are the ones, because we’ve been the only ones and the only reliable one to do it, is not going to work,” she said. “If you have that mentality, you are not going to get there.”

Mahan said the care service recognized early that it couldn’t do everything and works hand-in-hand with other denominations and groups.  She’s proud of what early advocacy has accomplished.

“My generation opened all the closets,” Mahan said. “We brought it out, we spoke in the plazas, at the top of the mountain, about domestic violence, child abuse, incest, child neglect, the gay community – name it, we’ve been able to do that.  I’m very grateful that we’ve been able to do that.”

 

 

 

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