Those are just a few of the adjectives used to describe Neil Oberto as the Hazleton community came together to honor and celebrate the long-time director of Catholic Social Services’ Hazleton Office last month.
Hundreds of family, friends and people who have been touched by Oberto’s dedication gathered April 29 at the Hazleton Art League for a “Celebration of Service.” Oberto worked for Catholic Social Services for nearly 35 years, including 28 years as Hazleton office director, before retiring at the end of January.
“It truly has been a joy and a privilege to work for the agency all these years,” Oberto said. “It was not only responding to emergency needs of food, clothing and shelter, which are so important, but it was also going beyond that with the numerous programs throughout the years, the mentoring programs, counseling programs, parenting services, programs that truly uplifted individuals and families on their road to self-sufficiency.”
Terry Moran Bauder, who serves on the Catholic Social Services Advisory Board and is the retired director of Luzerne County Community College’s center in Hazleton, said Oberto brought hope to many in the Mountain City.
“Neil’s deep walk of faith and his conviction that every person we meet is an image bearer of Christ has led him to treat each person that he served during his more than 30 years at Catholic Social Services with dignity and respect,” she explained. “That helped them to work through hard times and to have hope for their future.”
Timothy Trently, Division Manager for Service Electric, said if he could have one-tenth of Oberto’s humility and compassion he would be happy.
“Everyone that touches Catholic Social Services, whether it be the food bank or needing clothing or the shelter, is part of Neil’s extended family and Neil treated them with love, respect, humility and kindness,” Trently explained.
All of the guests who came out to celebrate Oberto’s retirement say there is no direct way to quantify how many thousands of people he touched over the years.
“Neil is truly the face of Jesus in our community. He has unconditionally loved everyone. He does whatever it takes to get something done to help whoever he can in any condition,” George Hayden, President, Hayden Power Group, said. “He’s the type of guy that doesn’t ask, he just does it, he goes out and does what needs to be done in our community.”
SCRANTON – After working for the last seven years as a Department of Justice Immigration Counselor & Immigration Program Coordinator for Catholic Charities of Southern Colorado, Fikile Ryder, MSCJ, is bringing her knowledge and expertise to Catholic Social Services of the Diocese of Scranton.
Ryder started as the new full-time Director of Community for Catholic Social Services in October 2022. As part of that position, she will be responsible for Immigration and Refugee Resettlement Services.
“The work is very rewarding. I am an immigrant myself so I’ve been in the same shoes of those that I represent. I know how they feel,” she explained.
Ryder will oversee five immigration and refugee support programs for Catholic Social Services, many of which were inactive until recently because no employees possessed full accreditation with the U.S. Department of Justice.
“Our agency (Catholic Social Services) is recognized with the Department of Justice. With the immigration program itself, people who work in that program have to be accredited in order for them to do the legal part of the immigration process. If someone leaves the organization, then that accreditation is terminated,” she explained.
Joe Mahoney, Diocesan Secretary for Catholic Human Services and Chief Executive Officer of Catholic Social Services, said his agency’s work is rooted in the Gospel and Catholic social teaching, which emphasizes that migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are to be cared for with dignity and respect.
“I have known and worked with Fikile for years and she is a tremendous addition to our area,” Mahoney said. “She brings amazing skills and diverse experiences and I think we are lucky to be able to hire her.”
Born in Zimbabwe, Ryder first came to the United States in 2003 with a temporary work visa after being offered a job in Virginia to work with a child who had autism.
When her contract ended in 2009, she returned to Africa but her boyfriend at the time from America went to Zimbabwe and asked her to marry him.
She then came back to the United States in 2011 with her green card.
“My immigration process was done by Catholic Charities in Pueblo, Colorado, and took about eight months,” Ryder explained.
Thankful for the assistance of Catholic Charities, she started volunteering with the agency and was later hired as an administrative assistant. She worked her way up to a fully-accredited Immigration Counselor and Immigration Program Coordinator.
“The accreditation allows me to do everything that an attorney can do, an immigration attorney, like filing paperwork, giving legal advice, legal representation,” Ryder explained. “I can go to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) with the clients and speak on their behalf.”
One of the newest refugee support service programs that Ryder now oversees for Catholic Social Services deals specifically with paroled Ukrainians who are referred from either Luzerne or Lackawanna Counties. The main job is to help the individuals find and maintain employment.
“We screen them to find out what kind of skills they have, what kind of availability they have and we also screen them on the barriers that will prevent them from finding a job,” she said. “The main goal is to have them be self-sufficient.”
Under its Resettlement & Replacement Program, Catholic Social Services helped welcome a family of six to northeastern Pennsylvania on January 24. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops funds that program.
“They are with us for 90 days. We have to make sure they have a home, the kids are enrolled in school and we find them a job. Any needs they have, we help them in those 90 days,” Ryder explained.
While she admits she didn’t know much about Scranton before taking her new position, she has been pleasantly surprised how many immigrants and refugees are settling locally.
“I was shocked at how many refugees from Africa are here,” she said. “They like Scranton because it is more affordable. We’ve had people come in from New Jersey and New York wanting to settle here because the cost of living is way too much there.”
As she looks towards the future, Ryder says she hopes to educate people on who refugees are and why they are coming to the United States – whether it is because they’re fleeing war or persecution. She would also like to begin a volunteer program for the community and work with parishes and schools.
“We have a lot of work and we cannot do it by ourselves,” Ryder said. “It would be very helpful to work with our parishes. When I was in Colorado, I collaborated with parishes who provided space for me so that I could do ‘Know Your Rights’ presentations, consultations and case management services right there in the church.”
For more information on Immigration and Refugee Resettlement Services provided by Catholic Social Services, contact Fikile Ryder at (570) 207-2283, x2121 in Scranton and (570) 455-1521, x4304 in Hazleton.
SCRANTON – Twenty-four long days and nights.
That is how long Khalil Yademovich Madadov spent seeking safety in the basement of his home in Eastern Ukraine after the Russian invasion of his country began Feb. 24, 2022. Joined by his wife, Leila, and their three young children in the makeshift shelter, the 37 year old described it as a terrifying time.
“I gathered my family at 4 a.m. and ran to the basement,” he said. “Only I went out to look for food and water.”
Madadov moved to Ukraine at the age of six and spent 30 years going to school, university, and making a living as a potato and tomato farmer. He says his life was “perfect” until Russia began launching attacks on his country.
“I began praying to God to help me and show me how to protect my family,” Madadov explained. “Good news came when we heard about a program called ‘Uniting for Ukraine,’ a program that saved our lives.”
In April 2022, the United States announced the ‘Uniting for Ukraine’ program. It provides a pathway for Ukrainian citizens and their immediate family members to come to the United States and stay temporarily for a two-year period of parole.
Ukrainians participating in the program must have a supporter in the United States who agrees to provide them with financial support for the duration of their stay in the United States.
Madadov’s sister, Lola Ahmetbeg, has lived in the U.S. since 2006 and is serving as sponsors for Madadov and his family.
After traveling four days by bus from Ukraine to Turkey, Madadov and his family finally arrived in the United States last June, four months after the war began.
“I took a very deep breath. I knew then that my family was safe and I was safe,” he explained.
After arriving in Scranton, Madadov and his family turned to Catholic Social Services of the Diocese of Scranton for assistance.
Through Refugee Support Services, Catholic Social Services was able to help the family find affordable housing in the Midtown Apartments, enroll their two oldest children in school and help Khalil get the proper work authorization paperwork so he could get a job as a warehouse packer.
“Catholic Social Services helped us find the resources we need to succeed in this new country,” Madadov said gratefully. “Thank you for everything you have done for us!”
Gulnar Siddiqi, the case manager who has been helping the family, said Catholic Social Services is always willing to help people in the community.
“I was a refugee when I came to the United States and Catholic Social Services helped me so it is time that we have to stand up for each other and hold each other’s hands,” Siddiqi said.
With the continued assistance of Catholic Social Services, Khalil Madadov says he feels very comfortable in the United States at this time.
“Our neighborhood is good. We like it here very much,” he said. “Thank you very much Catholic Social Services!”
HAZLETON – After serving the people of Hazleton for nearly 35 years – including 28 years as director of Catholic Social Services’ Hazleton Office – Neil Oberto has decided to step back.
On Jan. 31, 2023, Oberto officially retired from his position, although he simply refers to the decision as a “transition” to be able to dedicate more time to his family.
“I have been truly blessed,” Oberto said in discussing his change with The Catholic Light. “My family (which includes his wife, four daughters and several grandchildren) came along for the ride this entire time.”
To honor Oberto’s dedication to the mission of Catholic Social Services and the people of the Hazleton area, Catholic Social Services will honor him at a retirement celebration/dinner on April 29 at 6:30 p.m. at the Hazleton Art League. Information on how to purchase tickets will be available soon on the Diocese of Scranton’s website or by calling the Catholic Social Services Office in Hazleton.
Oberto started his career with Catholic Social Services in October 1988 after previously working with Luzerne County Children & Youth. While the Hazleton native said he was hired for a counseling position, the job description incorporated much more.
“I was taking on counseling cases but also I was taking on social welfare cases,” he explained. “It was everything. You did everything.”
Oberto took over as director of the Catholic Social Services Hazleton Office in 1995. He saw programs begin, grow and change over all that time.
“When I started, our food pantry was a closet,” he reminisced. “Then the food closet turned into a walk-in closet … then the food pantry went from a walk-in closet to what was a former auditorium in the school … and then it had the whole lower level of the church.”
During all of his time, Oberto stressed his love for the Mountain City and its “close-knit” social service agencies that have worked together with the “CAN DO” attitude.
“We addressed needs as we needed to address them,” he stressed.
From programs involving adoption and foster care to maternal health and homeless, Oberto helped to oversee it all over the years.
“One of the things we tried to maintain throughout the years was a strong working relationship with the churches because we saw the work as living a call to service,” Oberto added.
Despite working with countless advisory and governing boards, volunteers, staff members and community partners, Oberto feels his biggest accomplishment will always be serving the people.
“The most important thing would be the individuals and families themselves who sought support, no matter what that need may have been. Hopefully, in some way, we were able to help make a difference,” Oberto stated. “The work itself was based on respecting the God-given dignity and self-worth of those served, no matter what the circumstances may have been, and through that, I hope those being served recognized their own human value.”
Until his final day on the job, Oberto said he was also “personally enriched” by those served – and that is why he continued to emphasize that he is “truly blessed.”
Danielle Matarella, who worked with Oberto for several years, is now serving as the Greater Hazleton Regional Coordinator for Catholic Social Services. Anyone in need of assistance can contact her at (570) 455-1521.
SCRANTON – Catholic Social Services of the Diocese of Scranton is preparing to assist more individuals and families with putting food on the table after a pandemic-era program that provided extra payments to Americans who quality of food stamps ended on March 1.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress permitted states to issue extra money to food stamp recipients under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, a move advocates said would help low-income families who lost their jobs amid the crisis.
The change affects Pennsylvania’s 1.9 million SNAP recipients. The average eligible household will lose $95 a month for groceries and comes at a time when many grocery items – including milk, eggs and wheat – remain high due to inflation.
“We are already starting to see an abundance of new individuals and families,” LeeAnn Lywiski, manager of the Saint Joseph Food Pantry in Hazleton, said. “In one day alone, we registered 15 new families.”
Catholic Social Services operates food pantries in Carbondale, Hazleton and Wilkes-Barre and partners with Saint Francis Kitchen in Scranton, which operates the Saint Francis Client-Choice Food Pantry.
Catholic Social Services pantry managers expect people to have a lot of anxiousness and anxiety but want to reassure those in need their agency is ready to help people access the food they need and deserve.
“In speaking to one of our senior citizen clients recently about the change, they were concerned about not having enough food for the month,” Mike Cianciotta, manager of the Saint Vincent de Paul Pantry in Wilkes-Barre, said. “I reassured them that we will be increasing the amount of products we provide at our food bank.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Catholic Social Services has continued to respond to increasing need at its food pantries.
For example, between January 2022 and 2023, the Carbondale food pantry saw nearly a 20-percent increase in the number of families served – going from 687 to 835 families in each respective month.
“We are dedicated to making sure every client that walks through the door is served with the utmost respect. We strive to make sure our brothers and sisters feel better about their situation when they walk out our door,” Kara Gnall, Carbondale office supervisor, explained.
In Scranton, the numbers are even more startling.
Prior to the pandemic, the Saint Francis Client-Choice Food Pantry served approximately 300 families each month. Now, the facility is consisting hitting the 700 family mark.
“We get new families every day. We have committed to having fresh produce, milk, eggs and meat when we can. I am anticipating an even larger uptick” manager Adam Lynch said. “We have a Food Policy Council meeting once a month to discuss changes and what is coming next and this was in our last discussion, the food stamps and benefits changing and the need that will be increasing.”
The federal reductions to SNAP benefits is the first of two major changes that will likely impact Catholic Social Services food pantries.
Additionally, the 2023 cost of living adjustment for Social Security Income (SSI), which is set by the federal government, prompted an 8.7 percent increase to SSI income. SNAP eligibility thresholds – also set at the federal level – did not rise proportionally. Because of this, approximately 249,000 Pennsylvania households will experience a decrease in their base SNAP benefits by an average of $40 per household, which also took effect March 1. Approximately 5,000 to 20,000 households will lose SNAP altogether due to the SSI increase. These federal reductions will primarily affect older Pennsylvanians and seniors.
Catholic Social Services is only able to meet the increasing needs in our community because of generous donors who support its live-saving work.
“Northeastern Pennsylvania has always been known as the Valley with a Heart and because of many kind-hearted people, who donate $20, $50 or whatever they can, we are able to make sure food and other resources are available,” Joe Mahoney, Diocesan Secretary for Catholic Human Services and Chief Executive Officer of Catholic Social Services, emphasized.
SCRANTON – Catholic Social Services is happy to announce that Saint Anthony’s Haven will reopen for individuals needing emergency shelter this evening (Thursday, Dec. 29, 2022) at 7 p.m. and resume its normal hours of operation assisting our brothers and sisters experiencing homelessness.
Furthermore, the 15 residents from Saint James Manor, who were also displaced on Monday evening when a sprinkler pipe burst, are also being allowed to return to their apartments today.
While some clean-up work in the building at the intersection of Wyoming Avenue and Olive Street remains ongoing, the building has been deemed safe for normal operations to resume.
The administration of Catholic Social Services would like to thank all of the contractors and repair crews that have been working virtually non-stop for the last three days to allow us to reopen so quickly and continue our critical mission of serving the community. We would also like to once again thank the residents and individuals who rely on Saint Anthony’s Shelter for their patience and understanding this week.
For more information on the programs and services offered by Catholic Social Services, please visit dioceseofscranton.org/css/catholic-social-services