Christine Wagner, SSJ

I always look forward to the last few days before Christmas. Not because the holiday rush will be almost over or I’ll have a week off. It’s because Christine Wagner, SSJ will be stopping by (hopefully!) with her famous cinnamon raisin bread. That bread gets me through those last few days, toasted with butter for breakfast (makes great French toast too but it doesn’t usually hang around long enough for that.)

I’ve been neighbors with Sr. Chris for a very long time. I moved into the Wedge in 1991, the same year that Sr. Chris began overseeing the establishment of the St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center. The Sisters of St. Joseph, of which Sr. Chris has been a member of since 1975, strive to improve quality of life through education, advocacy, social work and health care. At the time, one of the Sisters was the director of St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality (which has no affiliation with the Neighborhood Center or the Sisters of St. Joseph) and identified a need for primary health care, social services and mental health care for the working poor in the South Wedge area. The idea for the Neighborhood Center was born and opened in 1993. 

“The volunteers are the heart and soul of the Neighborhood Center. There’s no reason for our volunteers to be here other than a commitment to service and to addressing the needs of the people who come here.”

Sr. Chris became the Executive Director in 1995 somewhat reluctantly after the first executive director retired. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Science and English from SUNY Brockport and taught for awhile then earned her Ph. D. in Social Science from Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. “I knew I wanted to stay engaged with the Center in some way but I had come back after doing my graduate work to do more community organizing so it was not my intent in terms of my career to do hands on director stuff. I said I would come in for 6 months as director while the board looked for somebody else. What I discovered though, in those 6 months, was that other people were doing the hands on tasks and I could do the systemic stuff and the administrative stuff while in this job. So it was actually a beautiful marriage between being able to apply my community organizing while you’re in the midst of why you would do community organizing. I can walk downstairs, listen to the stories of the people and get enmeshed at some level but then go ‘We need to fix this problem on a macro level.’ The Neighborhood Center has been put in a position to be at the macro level and make some system changes.”

Sr. Chris is well versed in the new Affordable Health Care Act and holds meetings to explain it to anyone who has questions. The Affordable Care Act will help to provide health insurance to most of the clients of the Center. “We stand ready to help people access their health care options as the Affordable Care Act is enacted” says Sr. Chris. “However, we know that some people will fall through the cracks. We will be here, as always, to help those people.”

Sr. Chris oversaw the original renovation of the Center and the two expansions since. With the purchase and renovation of the two buildings south of 417 South Avenue, the Center is now able to accommodate 22 staff members and the many volunteers, providing health care, mental health counseling, adult education and social services to over 3,000 uninsured or underinsured individuals annually. “When we first opened we had 750 visits a year. Now we have 35000 visits a year.” This is all done without any federal, state or local government support. Funding for their annual $920,000 budget comes mainly from fundraising with a small percentage from grants and fees for services. The annual auction is always a great party, with this year’s Aye, Medieval Merriment raising $80,000. None of this would be possible without the volunteers.

“The volunteers are the heart and soul of the Neighborhood Center. There’s no reason for our volunteers to be here other than a commitment to service and to addressing the needs of the people who come here. Health care professionals, mental health professionals, lay professionals who contribute to the running of the agency in whatever way we need. That’s 250 people who not only do their volunteer work here but because they stay for long periods of time they form a tight community, almost like family. And that also keeps drawing them back. We wouldn’t exist, not be able to continue, without their resources and their giving hearts. Literally, we would close.

Touring the Center one can easily get lost with the transitions between the three buildings and two floors. But the medical facilities are first rate, from the multiple exams rooms, two full dental exam rooms complete with digital x-ray, chiropractic and massage therapy rooms, plus rooms for counseling services, meeting rooms, and a full kitchen area. That was a must have with the latest renovation. Because Sr. Chris loves to cook, and cooks for the staff, volunteers and perspective partners.

The third Wednesday of every month is the Executive Breakfast where people come to tour the facility, find out what the Neighborhood Center is all about, and have a delicious breakfast. “I always say that’s why it’s called Executive Breakfasts because I cook it, not because executives come. I usually do a vegetable egg strata, homemade buttermilk biscuits, and fresh fruit. I love to do it. I always say it’s another hook for the volunteers but it kinda is. You feed the people, you know, and take care of them. If I was going to put a top line on my job description it’s Care and Feeding of Volunteers. They are here for a reason. They want to take care of people. Nobody comes here unless they are in crisis. They are not going to come here because they’re feeling good. And the volunteers, they’re going to absorb that crisis. They are going to hear the stories. They hear the problems. You can’t do that constantly without someone caring for the caregivers. So our job as a staff, and my job, is taking care of all these people, looking after them. What’s that crisis doing to them? How do you nurture them body and soul while they are taking care of all these problems? You feed ‘em and you make them feel good. If you have a party and we can laugh that’s good because they leave and they’ve done a good thing and they’ve had a good time doing it. The kitchen is a great place to do it. Great things happen around the kitchen table. Everybody recognizes that. It’s gotta be work and play, work and play, work and play all the time. I think we have the right balance about that. My uniform is my apron.”

Sr. Chris is no stranger to the South Wedge area. “My mom was born down on Caroline Street; the house is still there, 350 Caroline Street. She went to school at St. Boniface, was baptized there, married there, buried there. I remember climbing in the cherry tree at the house on Caroline Street. My aunt and uncle lived across the street. So this neighborhood has always been a part of my life. It’s just not foreign to me. It feels like I’ve always been…well, I have always been here because I always have been here. My aunt used to work at the old Star Market, what’s now the Dollar Store. When that closed we had at our house the old butcher block that was in the meat market in the Star Market. I remember the deep grooves that were in that butcher block because it was used! So the ties to the neighborhood for me go back 60 years. My mother’s mother was an entrepreneurial woman who owned many properties in this neighborhood. My mother remembers going with her to collect rents on these properties and she had enough properties to give each of her 4 children a house when they got married. She was the sustainer of the family. Because the men in the family, um, weren’t!” Sr. Chris laughs. “She was an immigrant so she would have come over here and dug right in and started being a real estate mogul at the turn of the century. So here’s her granddaughter buying properties in the same neighborhood!”

Sr. Chris inherited that entrepreneurial spirit from her grandmother. She taught cooking at the School of the Holy Childhood and “used to take orders for baked goods from the faculty and that has turned into the Special Touch Bakery. I baked the first pie with the kids! It’s turned into such a great success. I’m so glad about that.” She has harnessed that entrepreneurial spirit to make the Neighborhood Center a success and a vital resource for our community.