Catalyst for Change

05 Mar 2024

Our Lady of Mercy Community Outreach serves pressing needs of Sea Islands residents

By Sophia Rodriguez

In the first days of September 1989, a nonprofit was founded by the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy. The organization was dedicated to serving the most pressing needs of the Sea Islands residents. Its debut couldn’t have been more timely—a mere two weeks later, the Lowcountry would be ravaged by Hurricane Hugo. As they provided disaster relief door to door throughout the community, the sisters realized residents needed far more than emergency resources to combat the effects of poverty. The Sea Islands needed holistic, long-term solutions to eradicate systemic poverty and effect positive change.

“The community is our guiding force,” said Jermaine Husser, Executive Director of Our Lady of Mercy Community Outreach. “Since the beginning, we have been an advocate, facilitator and catalyst for change. We do not create services because we think the community needs it. We know that the community is the best agent for its own change.”

It's this grassroots approach that has turned Our Lady of Mercy Community Outreach into the powerhouse it is today. Thirty-five years on, it has extended its reach, which spans from downtown Charleston all the way to Edisto Island.

Both the Johns Island campus and the downtown Neighborhood House campus offer emergency relief services through a food pantry, clothing closet and financial assistance via a food pantry and clothing closet. But each location also offers services that target the unique needs of the communities in which each campus resides. Meanwhile, Neighborhood House offers a lunchtime soup kitchen during the weekdays that is open to the public.

The fast growth in the Lowcountry has made it hard for a lot of people to be self-sufficient. Gentrification is causing poverty to spread to the outwards, pushing people who need help farther away from resources. This is breaking apart communities, cultures and ways of life that have been important for a long time. The chain reaction of low wages, expensive healthcare, unequal education, hard-to-find affordable housing and limited access to digital resources is really hurting individuals and families. It's causing lasting problems for generations.

“Families consumed with meeting basic needs can’t focus on other pursuits like education or health,” said Jeannie Colson, the nonprofit’s marketing manager. “Food, clothing and financial assistance for rent and utilities help alleviate that immediate burden. Securing employment or a higher-waged job is critical to basic economic security. Resume development, job applications and mock interviews through case management and job fairs fill this need. Dental and prenatal care can change the trajectory of one’s life.”

Additionally, Our Lady of Mercy Community Outreach’s after-school program assists elementary school children, while its GED classes help individuals close the high school gap. ESL courses give non-English speakers a way to navigate life and to help their children do the same. A financial literacy curriculum focused on comprehensive financial management enhances the client’s understanding of money, savings, and credit.

“We strive to create a welcoming, inclusive, and purposeful environment. When individuals and families come to us, we take the time to sit down and listen to their stories,” Husser said. “We work together to set achievable goals, providing one-on-one guidance and support throughout their journey towards self-sufficiency. Our in-house social services team collaborates with our neighbors in need to identify the root causes of their challenges, set goals and create action plans for progress. “Everyone has a different story. Everyone has different needs, barriers, hopes and dreams.”

Part of the organization’s success stems from a strong network of community partnerships. The dental clinic partners with MUSC and Trident Tech, operating as a teaching facility. The OB/GYN program operates in partnership with Roper St. Francis and lets mothers transition between prenatal care at the Johns Island campus, birth at the hospital, and back to the organization’s doctors for first appointment postnatal care. The Yes I Can! after-school program partners with Angel Oak Elementary.  In partnership with the Lowcountry Food Bank, the organization distributes shelf-stable, nutritious Senior Food Boxes once a month. And this doesn’t even include the many individuals who volunteer their time and talents.

“We meet people where they are. Not just for the short term. We invest in their lives, their legacy and their story.” In 1999, a young, pregnant woman walked into the wellness center. After receiving prenatal care, her daughter, Ana, was born. The family remained closely connected to the organization over the years, using several of its services to support their family as it grew, including the Yes, I Can! after-school program and summer camps. In 2018, Ana began an internship in the outreach’s Wellness Center and realized she was interested in social work. Three years later, she graduated with her degree in human services and began her career as a patient liaison at the Wellness Center. Now, she is one of the organization’s social services coordinators, guiding individuals and families on their journey to what self-sufficiency looks like for them.

“Every day we are seeking innovative ways to help create meaningful change in people’s lives, and so we invite our neighbors to see us in action, whether through donations, volunteering, or becoming a part of our board or committees,” said Husser. “We believe that by working together, we can empower our neighbors in need and build equitable and stronger communities.”

To find out more or to get involved, follow on social media @OLMOutreach, email or call 843-559-4109 x114.

Prev Post Bonnets, Breeches and Brocade
Next Post Red is where the Heart Is
Brookfield Residential