HELEN WHALEN WORKS on art at the Roarke Center with Claire Sherwood and art by a Creative Hearts art program participant is displayed.
HELEN WHALEN WORKS on art at the Roarke Center with Claire Sherwood and art by a Creative Hearts art program participant is displayed.
"Weaving is a way for me to be creative. I love being able to express myself. I forget all that I bring with me. It relieves me of stress," says Donna Pratt.

Ms. Pratt is a patron of the Roarke Center in downtown Troy, a program operated under the umbrella of Catholic Charities' Tri-County Services that is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

While the center offers emergency assistance, a food pantry and help for women with legal issues and those leaving incarceration, one of its greatest successes is its creative arts program.

"I look at art as being part of nature with many colors. I simply use them, combine them together to reflect what Mother Nature created," declared Irish Boykins, another patron of the center who has come to enjoy creating art.

Sister Loretta Hoag, DC, turned from a 32-year career in education to becoming an "artist educator" for the Roarke Center. She called it a "challenge to develop an adult program focusing with the visual arts in this social service agency," but she rose to that challenge.

"The maxim of St. Vincent that impels me is, 'Be creative to infinity,'" Sister Loretta told The Evangelist. "This defines the service at the Roarke Center.

"Ministry is finding mutual need with those who live with poverties, while reaching out together to find the prerequisite requirements for belonging, community and justice with compassion," she said.

How it began
The Roarke Center opened in 1997 in the former St. Anthony's School building in Troy, named for south Troy native Sister Mary Basil Roarke, DC. The Daughters of Charity religious order provided seed money for the center, bolstered by funding from the order's National Health System, which oversaw Troy-based Seton Health.

The center's initial goal was to ask low-income residents of the city what they needed and provide for those needs, rather than dictating what help would be available. The first request from patrons was "dignity."

Thus, the Roarke Center created a food pantry that's more of a cooperative: Families can choose the foods they need, so there's less wasted food; and they can get personal care items, which can't be purchased with SNAP benefits (food stamps).

The center's six staff and 27 volunteers offer information on resources and nutrition, explaining the need to balance fruits and vegetables, protein and carbohydrates -- while offering meat, eggs, bread and more.

Other needs that surfaced over the years led to emergency assistance to help patrons get identification documents, avoid evictions or utility disconnections, and to receive referrals for additional services. About 250 households seek this kind of assistance from the Roarke Center every year.

Among the Roarke Center's clients are people reentering the community after incarceration, especially women. A previous story in The Evangelist on the center's reintegration program noted that women who are jailed for drug offenses, breaking probation or writing bad checks often emerge after months or more without homes, employment or resources to restart their lives.

About 50 clients a year are helped by the Roarke Center to find jobs, get bus passes for required appointments and set goals for safe housing, employment and family relations.

Catholic Charities
In 2008, the center transitioned to become a Catholic Charities program. It kept its focus on "mission-driven services to assist poor and marginalized people in Troy."

It also kept what had, over the years, become a vital part of its ministry: the Creative Hearts art program.

Today, the art program empowers persons with various disabilities, including chronic mental health issues, to find self-confidence and self-expression through art.

Pottery, printmaking, painting, creative writing, sewing and weaving are all taught to patrons of the center, who display and sell their work at venues such as the Schaghticoke Fair and Troy's Victorian Stroll.

"With every piece of artwork I make, there is a new experience and satisfaction. It is like my inner self is new, too. I would like people to remember the spontaneity of my art," said Michael Jewett, a client of the center who has learned to express himself through artistic media.

"Because I make art, I notice more beauty in my world. I am proud when I see my accomplishments," agreed fellow client Deb Groesbeck. All about art

This year alone, the Roarke Center has sponsored several artists' receptions and exhibits of work by clients. One exhibit, titled "Chronicles" -- the focus for the anniversary year -- presented abstract, idea-driven art "to put face and form to people who live with the poverties of chronic mental health, disabilities and homelessness."

Displayed at the RPI Chapel and Cultural Center (which is also home to Christ Sun of Justice parish), the Chronicles exhibit included written and recorded stories, prints, paintings and sculptures that document the memories of people who live in and with poverty. Other Roarke exhibits in 2017 focused on endangered species and on community engagement.

Sister Loretta said her own work and that of the center as a whole embodies the Vincentian charism of charity. Artist and center patron Samantha Grimes put it more simply: "I love making art because it is a gift God gave to me. I have a passion to make my ideas so that I can share them. When someone sees my idea, we can talk about it."

Added fellow patron LuAnn Dufresne: "If more people could do art all the time, I think the world would be a better place."

(Contact the Roarke Center at 518-512-3577, ext. 115, or jcarroll@ccalbany.org.)