Catholic Charities connects town, family

Catholic Charities of Omaha, the community of Spalding just outside the western edge of the archdiocese and the Catholic school in that town are teaming up to help improve the lives of low-income families and reverse the declining populations faced by many small towns.

And the first beneficiaries are husband and wife, José Santos Rivera and Maria Martinez, natives of El Salvador who have lived 16 years in the United States, and their three children. They moved last month from Omaha to Spalding, a town of 487 people, as part of the Spalding Academy Homestead Program, designed to relocate families with school-age children who are struggling to find good jobs and affordable housing.

Catholic Charities has been reaching out to people in south Omaha, which has a high Latino population, but the program is open to anyone of any faith willing to participate, said Dennis Bauer of Spalding, a member of the homestead committee. Two other families in Omaha and a family from outside of Nebraska also have expressed interest, Bauer said.  

With help from the Spalding community, José works with cattle and row crop farming at an area agriculture company, and Maria cleans at a home and business in town. The family’s home needed repair so rent was deducted for their labor, and tuition assistance is coming from a program at Spalding Academy, the Catholic prekindergarten through high school that is leading the homestead program and is part of St. Michael Parish in Spalding.

José and Maria said they chose to work with the homestead program because they thought it would give them with an opportunity to live in a rural, agriculture community, and provide a Catholic education for their children and a better future for them all.

“We are all learning about farming and agriculture, which has not been an opportunity for us in the city,” Martinez said. “We have met many nice people who are caring and giving in Spalding. We are looking forward to improving our English, being involved in the Catholic Church, Spalding Academy and the community of Spalding.”

Spalding is no stranger to supporting strangers. The community was founded by Irish coal miners in the eastern United States migrating to Nebraska to establish new homes.

Today’s program is needed in Spalding and other small towns as they struggle to stem declining populations, said Bauer, a member St. Michael Parish. Bringing families from out of town, employing them and getting them involved in the school and the parish helps the community and the family, he said.

“We want to make sure that they are in charge of their own destiny,” Bauer said. “We can provide them the tools and the necessary things but we want to make sure it’s right for them and they’re successful.”

It appears to be working for José and Maria. Beginning next month, two of their children – Estefania, an eighth-grader, and Eduardo, a fifth-grader – will attend Spalding Academy. Their daughter, Emely, is 3 months old.

Deacon David Klein, facilities and disaster response director at Catholic Charities, said Bauer called last fall looking for families to participate in the homestead program. Deacon Klein said he jumped at the chance, because it was something he had been thinking about as he brainstormed ways Catholic Charities could play a larger role in rural counties of the Archdiocese of Omaha.

Deacon Klein worked with St. Michael parishioners, who developed criteria and a plan for the program, and Ana Barrios, director of Catholic Charities’ Juan Diego Center in south Omaha, to find José and Maria and their family.

“We wanted to send someone who was capable of working, capable of getting employment and able to be life-sustaining to help that community,” Deacon Klein said.

People in Spalding moved the family, helped them unpack and welcomed them to the community. José and Maria’s two older children speak English and have acted as interpreters for their parents, who plan to take English language classes.

Deacon Klein said he will continue to work with Homestead Program, and wants to talk to parishes and identify at least one in every archdiocesan county – excluding Douglas County – that would work with him to help relocate families in a similar fashion.

Bauer said Catholic Charities has been an important part of the program.

“Without Catholic Charities, a program like this would be pretty difficult,” he said. “Catholic Charities needs to be involved to make this program a success.”

No matter what happens in the future, Deacon Klein said, it’s already a success.

“I think if we can affect even one family and make a difference in their lives, and in return they’re making a difference in the lives of those in the community they’ve joined, then we’re doing what we’re called to do.”

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