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By Jerry Duggan

A child utilizes the computers and tutoring services offered at the Thensted Center.

June 22, 2020 – When the Thensted Center cancelled all in-person activities due to COVID-19, there was a moment of disappointment, even despair. Tutoring services for students, programs for senior citizens and the building itself were shut down. That sadness was quickly replaced by a “can do” attitude, as the Center repurposed itself during the pandemic. Its team of volunteers and staff worked to distribute food bags, frozen prepared dinners and hygiene items/household cleaning supplies to those in need, in addition to doing grocery shopping for those who cannot shop for themselves.

Founded in 1974 by Sr. Margaret “Mike” Hoffman, RSCJ, to honor the memory of Fr. Cornelius Thensted, SJ, the Center has been an anchor of the predominately low income Grand Coteau, Louisiana, community ever since. Although it is named for a Jesuit, the Center is not an apostolate of the province. Rather, it is an independent, not-for-profit entity that has two main functions: to assist those in poverty and to uplift, through means of education and services, those same individuals to help them be self-sufficient.

According to Executive Director Julia Richard, this two-tiered strategy forms the Center’s overall approach. “It’s not hand out, it’s hand up,” she said. “We want to help people out, of course, but we also want to give them tools – the education, social structure and services – so that they can one day be independent.”

The Center is a place where all walks of life congregate. All races and all ages – from school-aged children in need of tutoring to senior citizens for whom the Center is a social hub – come to the Center to find assistance.

When the spread of COVID-19 rendered in-person gatherings unsafe, the Center employed new outreach efforts designed to combat the financial and emotional hardship its clients were facing as a result of the pandemic.

Over the past five weeks, the Center has distributed 720 food bags to local families. The staff and volunteers have also delivered some 350 frozen prepared dinners to roughly 80 homebound clients who cannot cook for themselves, and sent out 260 boxes of hygiene items, including gloves, to those in need.

Julia Richard (right) and a Thensted Center volunteer unpack donations.
Julia Richard (right) and a Thensted Center volunteer unpack donations.

The Center also partnered with the Department of Education Summer Food Service Program to provide 540 meals per day (breakfast and lunch to 270 children) in Grand Coteau and the surrounding communities. Since the start of the pandemic, the Center has distributed 10,800 meals in all. The program is slated to run through July 24 and may be extended if schools do not reopen in August.

Many of the Center’s elderly clients are also missing the social benefits the Center provides. “On top of being a difficult time financially, this is a lonely time for many people,” Richard said. So, the Center has volunteers making phone calls to elderly clients who live alone, in an effort to alleviate some of that loneliness.

All of these efforts are in line with the Thensted Center’s broader mission, which is to “build up people of all ages and social backgrounds, without regard to race or religion, as they strive for healthier, more fulfilling and self-sufficient lives.”

With just two full-time staff members, the Center relies on about 50 volunteers to meet its clientele’s needs. In fact, many volunteers are also beneficiaries of the Center’s programs. “In Grand Coteau, we take care of each other,” Richard said. “We know that we’re all in this together, and that we all benefit when we’re kind to each other and help out.”

The Center’s noble work is also made possible by many partnerships with organizations such as the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province and St. Charles College, in addition to local schools, Catholic Charities of Acadiana, Food Net, Al-Anon, St. Charles Borromeo Church, Knights of Peter Claver, Ladies Auxiliary, Acadiana Center for the Arts, Nurse-Family Partnership, and Festival of Words.

Richard has been the Center’s executive director for more than a decade and has worked at the Center in some capacity for approximately 30 years. Still, she believes she has gotten more from the Center than she has given it. “Once I started to help out here, I started to feel whole and became more in touch with myself,” she said. “Through my work at the Thensted Center, I have come to better understand the people I serve, as well as myself.”

Although the Center plans to continue its current programming for the remainder of summer and return to some sense of normalcy in the fall, it remains ready to operate in “pandemic mode” for the foreseeable future. “No matter how long this goes on, we will be here,” Richard said. “Even if things might not be back to normal, we will never stop doing our part to help our community, pandemic or not.”