Located in a converted residence at 1102 E. McCarty St., El Puente Hispanic Ministry provides outreach to and connects about 3,000 Hispanic residents of Cole and Moniteau counties with essential services.
Sister Barbara Neist, interim executive director of the ministry, said the organization is a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit through the Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City. For instance, when it makes grant requests, it does that through the diocese.
The organization’s annual financial reports are posted at el-puente-mo.org; contact information is also found there.
Neist responded to a number of questions concerning the ministry. Questions and answers were edited for length and clarity.
Q. What are El Puente’s missions and programs?
A. We are a Catholic agency. Our primary focus from the beginning has been to really help people experience the healing love of Jesus, specifically through our ministry in the Hispanic community. So, it’s promoting human dignity.
The specific services that the sisters began with — they described it as both presence and outreach to the Hispanic community. Sometimes, the presence is not necessarily doing something, but being with (people) at the times of family emergencies, family crisis, family celebrations. It is accompanying people in life.
El Puente, of course, means the bridge. From the beginning, we’ve tried to be that bridge to help connect people to resources that they need. For example, if they need legal assistance — we don’t have an attorney on staff, but we try to connect them with the resource they need for that. If they don’t have medical insurance, we assist them. How do you go about getting that? What are you eligible for? That’s that social service piece we do.
The other big piece of what we do is pastoral ministry, both through St. Peter Church in Jefferson City and through Annunciation (Catholic Church) in California. That’s really helping people develop leadership among community members themselves. Helping prepare for Catholic sacraments. Encouraging faith development.
It’s really those two pieces — pastor work and the more direct social services.
Q. How has the mission changed over time?
A. The specific service has evolved through the years. This is our 20th year. The sisters, from the beginning, tried to respond to what the people brought them as needs. So, it began with some pregnant moms coming in and asking, ‘Where do I go for prenatal care? What can I do? I don’t speak English.’
That’s kind of where the idea of medical interpretation began. Some of the sisters got certified to be medical interpreters. We still do that. That’s a major service we do right now — is accompany people through doctors’ appointments, through labor, through delivery. And, we also provide transportation to those appointments — for moms and their kids, primarily, who don’t have any other way to get there.
Q. What are the challenges in Cole and Moniteau counties?
A. One of our challenges right now is finding bilingual staff. One of the staff members is on extended medical leave. Our executive director, who was one of the founders, was elected to leadership in her congregation, so she left in September. In this part of the world, that’s a challenge — finding the right staff and a bilingual staff who also understand our mission — our Catholic mission.
I think another one that we talk a lot about is the young people and how to help them be aware of our mission. We don’t only serve Catholics. We are open to everybody. There are young people who speak English in school and are good at English. But they may be from what I call a bi-cultural home. So they’re not sure where they fit, maybe don’t let anybody know they speak Spanish. How to incorporate them, make them proud of who they are, encourage them and help them develop their faith.
Q. What are El Puente’s fundraisers?
A. Money’s also a challenge. For us, fundraising, because of the anti-immigration climate, is always a challenge. I don’t think we’ve noticed a big decrease, but there’s always the thought of ‘How do people view this? Who are we serving?’ We don’t ask if people are documented or undocumented. The Catholic Church is very clear — the bishop has been very clear — about their thinking of what the framework of an immigration policy should be. They’re not for an open border, or anything like that, but for always putting the dignity of the person first. Not separating the families. And having a just immigration system. I think they’ve been very vocal and very clear. And that’s what we believe also. There is a lot of misinformation — the drain that people are on the economy. Or how they are using or taking a lot of our social service funds and draining us. Really, they are paying taxes and all that kind of stuff. It’s a hard issue.
Q. Do you have an annual fundraiser?
A. We do have one — the Trivia Night is every May. Other than that, we do grant writing. We have some people who are regular contributors to us. Some give several times a year. We do a Christmas appeal. Once a year, we have a special collection in the Catholic parishes, in what’s called the Jefferson City deanery. That’s a special collection during Sunday Mass. The diocese also gives us some financial support. We’ve collaborated with them since the beginning.
We are what is called a sponsored ministry of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word. The other sisters started this. They also support us through their development office. We do have a certain percentage of reimbursement for service. That comes from St. Mary’s Hospital.
Collaboration is a very important value for us. We couldn’t do what we do without collaboration. The diocese is the key one, supporting us in all kinds of ways. As I mentioned, St. Mary’s Hospital is a very important one. We collaborate with Cole County and Moniteau County health departments. The Community Health Center. The Samaritan Center. We have good relationships with all those entities.