Pensacola, Florida
Wednesday May 23rd 2018


Health Talk: Catholic Charities of Northwest Florida

By Jennie McKeon


Once you’ve decided to give up, you should also give back. Lent is not only a time for prayer and fasting, but alms giving.

“Lent represents becoming stronger in our faith and a reflection of ‘Love thy Neighbor,” said Mark Dufva, executive director of Catholic Charities of Northwest Florida. “What better way to share love than giving back?”

Catholic Charities of Northwest Florida isn’t as interested in knowing which church you go to as they are in helping the community. Of the 53,000 people served by the northwest chapter—which covers Pensacola, Fort Walton Beach, Panama City and Tallahassee—85 percent are not Catholic.

“We serve need, not creed,” Dufva said.

Dufva said the pre-Lent party is usually more popular than giving up and giving back.

“I see too much Mardi Gras and not enough Lent,” he said.

How you choose to give back is up to you. It doesn’t have to be just writing checks.

“Ask yourself, ‘How do I improve my community?’ Improve through your talent and time—share the wealth you’ve been blessed with,” Dufva said.

Many people choose to give back through the Bridges to Circles project, which matches motivated individuals living in poverty with allies who provide emotional support and assist with life issues.

Haley Richards is the Bridges to Circles community organizer. She started out as an ally with her mom and sister.

“It’s a different approach,” Richards said about the initiative. “Instead of putting canned goods in a box, you build a relationship and see how they transform.”

There are two options to becoming an ally and joining a circle, or a family trying to overcome poverty. The first is a matched circle, which is two to three allies working with one low-income family focused on accomplishing goals and building relationships. The second option is the outcome circle, where two to three circle leaders and two to three allies focus on one outcome such as finances, small business development or homeownership.

Allies do not support families financially, but rather emotionally. Allies are asked to commit to meetings on the first and third Tuesday of the month and weekly optional meetings.

Allies must complete a two-hour training session that gives an overview on Bridges to Circles as well as Bridges Out of Poverty, a session that offers strategies for allies. All training is conducted at the Catholic Charities’ Outreach Center at 1815 N. 6th Ave. from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. The next Bridges Out of Poverty class is Thursday, March 8 and the next Ally Training session is Thursday, Feb. 23. Contact Richards at 429-7296, ext. 17 to sign-up for training.

Whether it’s Bridges to Circles or visiting inmates, often the volunteers are just as touched as those who are helped.

“I’ve been helped more than the people I’m helping,” Dufva said. “I leave my prison ministries and I think, ‘Did I help them as much as they helped me?’”

It’s good for the community to know what needs to be improved on, and to build relationships with people from all walks of life.

“We motivate families to help change the system, barriers that keep people in poverty,” Richards said. “We want to change some things in the community.”

Bridges to Circles often helps break barriers between social class and the positive change is evident in some families. As of November 2011 there has been a 48 percent increase in median income for circles, from $576 to $1232 after 18 months.

“It was eye-opening,” Richards said of being an ally. “You know, there are people out there who are motivated to change—go against stereotypes. We worked with a couple of families who couldn’t look you in the eye when they first came here. Now, they’re willing to come and share their story.”


Catholic Charities of Northwest Florida

1000 W. Garden St., 435-3516


Bridges to Circles

429-7296, ext. 17