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Saint’s Place: Supporting Refugees from All Over the World

Nonprofit, already is its 25th year, has helped over 30,000 immigrants with housing and much more

By John Addyman

Map filled with little flags marking the countries refugees had come from, ending up in the care of Catholic Family Center and Saint’s Place.

In the Rochester area right now are men and women and children who don’t need a description of hell. They’ve been there.

From Ukraine they come. From the Congo. From Venezuela and Haiti and Afghanistan and Somalia they come.

They arrive in America with next to nothing.

“What if right now there were Russian troops coming right down this street with their tanks and guns and heavy machines?” Colleen Knauf asked. “What would you take as you escape? Who would you take to save? Would you grab your computer? What about your grandmother? What would be the one thing you would take with you? And how would you save yourself?”

Knauf is the founder of Saint’s Place in Pittsford, a volunteer-run organization that works hard to make sure any refugee making the horrific trip from a war-torn home to Rochester has a place of their own to stay, complete with everything they need for a fresh start in a new land.

After 25 years of experience with more than 30,000 refugees, Knauf and her group have learned a lot about how grateful people can be and what doing God’s work looks like.

“One of our refugees, who now sits on our board of directors, told me, ‘When I first came you were my first bed, my first blanket, my first bed covering. I’ll never forget the feeling when I arrived,’” she said.

Refugees are brought to Saint’s Place by social workers from Catholic Family Center, which is federally funded to process and settle these legal immigrants. After a new person’s first night in a bed in the apartment that’s been set up for them, the next morning is spent in the Saint’s Place clothing closet at St. John of Rochester parish center — more than 6,000 square feet of space dedicated to supporting newcomers to America.

Why there first?

“They don’t have any underwear,” explained Knauf matter-of-factly.

On an April morning, a young man from Afghanistan was being processed for clothing by two volunteers who helped him work his way through a room full of men’s clothes where he got fitted, head to toe.

All the clothing had been carefully screened at the former St. Louis rectory at 46 S. Main St. in Pittsford. “That’s where the donations come in. We’re lifting, schlepping, boxing, deciding whether we’re going to keep something we can use or is it something we’re going to share with another agency,” Knauf said. “We recycle every item that comes in.”

Then at St. John’s, there are large rooms for women’s clothing and men’s clothing and children’s clothing. There is a room for lamps and appliances and dishware and personal care items. Once Saint’s Place knows a family will be coming, detailed checklists guide volunteers into assembling a truckload of items that will be there and ready for the new residents to use when they get to their apartment.

‘Doing God’s Work’

Colleen Knauf started Saint’s Place 25 years ago, devoted to helping one Somali mom with a lot of kids.

Colleen Knauf started Saint’s Place in 1998, when she was working, alone, on helping to settle a Somali mom and her nine kids.

“When I started this ministry, the people coming in were so weary. I wanted them to have a clean, comfortable place to lay their weary bodies when they arrived,” she said. “These people were coming with just the clothes on their backs and I realized we had to provide clothing, too.”

As word got out about what Knauf was doing, people started arriving at her house with furniture and donated items that overstuffed the family garage.

“At one point, both my husband and our neighbors both said, ‘Would you please get out of here with all of your junk? Get out!’ So I became a nomad. I had nowhere to store the stuff. I began pounding on doors asking people, ‘Would you please give me space for no money and people did. But once they found a renter to pay them, they would kick me out. It was a constant moving, moving, moving — with furniture. It wasn’t easy.”

So people started to give her money, which Knauf used to lease warehouse space in the old pickle factory in Pittsford. But now more refugees were being brought in by Catholic Family Center and referred to Knauf and more volunteers were stepping up. Space continued to be an issue.

“In 2001 the property at 46 S. Main St. at St. Louis Church became available,” she said. “I went to the pastor, Jim Schwartz. I said to him, ‘This is a big house [it was originally the rectory for the priests when we had a lot of priests] on church property and we should be doing God’s work in this house, so I want the house.’ And he said, ‘You’re right, Colleen — you’re so right. Go take the house.’ So I moved into the house all by myself.”

That house, something between 3,000 and 4,000 square feet, became the staging center and hosted the first clothing closet, which grew increasingly overcrowded.

“It became a problem because we have a lot of handicapped refugees who come here and they couldn’t get up those stairs. Plus, we outgrew the space. There was a small women’s clothing room, a small men’s room, a small kids’ room. We were bursting at the seams,” she said. “I knew the school at St. John of Rochester was vacant, but I also knew it was a very sensitive subject because parents were not happy that the school had been closed. I went to that pastor. ‘Look, you’ve got all this space,’ I told Father Peter Clifford. ‘I’ve got all these refugees who need clothing. Would you be willing to share it with us — this would be a social outreach for your parish. Your parishioners can get involved. You can say, ‘We own this: it’s on our property. We’re doing God’s work here.’ He got the approval of parish council and we were in. In 2010 we had 6,000 more square feet of space. You can see how well-used this space is and it is a blessing from God. The church doesn’t charge us anything for being here. They pay the heat and the electricity. Most of our volunteers — and we have 200 volunteers — come from St. John Rochester. It’s a blessing for them, a blessing for us, and a blessing for the refugees.”

And some refugees need more blessings than others.

“I look back to the years when the Afghanis were coming in. The Taliban had slaughtered all the men in families, all the oldest sons and they did it in front of the mothers and the other kids in the family. Then they gang-raped the mothers and the children,” Knauf said, speaking as someone who has heard the tales too many times. “These mothers don’t get well. They can’t get well. But their kids are here now and they’re in the schools. I think about one particular family and their mother — her kids are all in college now. They knew they had to go to college. Their mom doesn’t understand this. The kids take care of their mother.”

War in Ukraine has sent millions fleeing the country and Rochester is a settlement point because the Ukrainian community here has been so welcoming, sponsoring refugees and helping to get them settled in. Things move along quicker in resettlement when someone in the family speaks English, Knauf explained.

Getting refugee kids into schools quickly is also a vital goal, with trips to health departments or doctors first, then signing up for classes. Knauf said that Webster schools, in particular, have worked special programs to welcome the influx of Ukrainian kids.

More Than Housing

Saint’s Place volunteers working on the first day in April were, from left, front row: Bobbi Sapp, Anne Karpinski, Leo Rivera; second row, Isabel Miller, Nancy Kolb, Beth Messner, Mary Galbraith, Sunni Povero, Micky Wetzel and Gerri Newcomb; back row: Colleen Knauf, Karen Finkle, Bernie Warren and Jane Sutter-Brandt.

Saint’s Place goes beyond furnishing apartments. Two tutoring groups are sponsored and staffed with volunteers. The group has sent refugees to trade schools and Monroe Community College to help them land jobs. Saint’s Place has supplied work clothing and tools for apprentices. Knauf points to another support, a separate program of awarding washers and dryers to families with a lot of kids.

It’s clear that Saint’s Place finds what refugees need to succeed in America and works to provide it.

And now, 25 years into the ministry, Knauf is circuit-riding churches in the area to help support what will be a very busy year.

“I’m raising awareness that the Ukrainians are coming and everyone wants to help the Ukrainians, but they’re not the only ones coming into this area. Because we’re getting such a large influx of Ukrainians, I want to offer them all the things I offer all the other refugees — job training, the washer and dryer, I want to send them to school, I want to be able to help them just as much, but I can’t do it unless the churches in Rochester help us financially,” she said. “I just sent out a million letters and I’m visiting churches physically to speak to the congregations to let people know, ’Do you know there are Ukrainians arriving? If you do know, you can help us – this is how you can help us.’

“So far, I’ve raised $50,000 since the end of December because people are empathetic and people want to help and this is the way they can do it. And I’m going to turn around and buy that laptop for somebody, those steel-toed shoes for somebody; I’m going to buy what they need with that money. People see what I’m doing in this ministry: I’m walking the walk. I remember an Afghani man. I came up to his house. He has a wife and eight or nine kids. I’m the truck driver. Bib overalls on, with a truck full of furniture. He opens his door and looks at me. ‘Why would you help me? You’re Christian.’ he asked. ‘And you’re a woman. Why would you help me?’

“As it turns out, we became best friends — he and I and his whole family. His eyes were opened up. Where he comes from — and many come like this — they come into our welcoming process and they see all these people wanting to help them. They can’t believe it. ‘Why would you help me? Why?’ They ask. Because we can and we should. That could be you and me, but it’s them and we’re responsible for them.”