Posted: August 22, 2021
By: Kris Demers, Prevent Child Abuse NC Communications Manager

In 2020, our world was flipped upside down with a global pandemic. We all faced new challenges on top of our everyday stressors. Two Prevention Action Network members saw a need to strengthen their communities during this challenging time by building connections that matter. They opened the door to connection and faith paved the way to hope, support, and compassion. Read their stories:

Emma Baltezore

Emma Baltezore, Executive Director of ONE Christian Network, has called Wilmington home for two decades and has been a part of several different ministries over the years.

When she first got into college, Baltezore wanted to volunteer in the community but didn’t quite know how. With over 300 churches in the Wilmington area, Baltezore thought there had to be a better way to get connected. She wanted to do more outreach collaboratively for the city but felt like people just didn’t know each other or how to serve others in the community.

“I just saw a need for more communication,” she said.

Baltezore envisioned a space where individuals could get to know each other, learn about available resources, and ultimately build connections that would strengthen their community. In 2014, ONE Christian Network (OCN) was born. OCN unites faith leaders to help transform Wilmington by raising awareness, offering resources and events, creating opportunities for connection and collaboration to empower and encourage faith leaders.

“There’s so many things that divide us, so we felt like creating a platform where you can connect and find that commonality, said Baltezore.

OCN builds connections by holding monthly meetings. But when natural disasters raged through and the global pandemic hit, OCN’s monthly meetings became an invaluable resource for this coastal town.

“When hurricane Florence came through it expanded and became a communication place where we learned who is doing what to help and how we can work together to mobilize people and resources to be more effective,” she said.

In March 2020, the world was struck with uncertainty and constantly inundated with new information due to COVID-19. As a result, OCN’s role paralleled the post-Florence response. Its monthly meetings turned into weekly meetings which quickly turned to biweekly meetings over the course of the year to help as many families as possible meet their basic needs.

“We all want our city to flourish and be able to have food and housing – especially during hurricanes, the pandemic, or other crises situations – so really focusing on connecting to improve access to basic needs has broken down barriers,” Baltezore said.

Basic needs, also known as Concrete Supports, is one of the five protective factors, or conditions in families and communities that, when present, increase the health and well-being of children and families and are linked to a lower incidence of child abuse and neglect.

Most faith communities are actively building safe, stable, nurturing environments for children and families whether they realize it or not. Faith communities that foster connection, compassion, and resilience are increasing the protective factors and helping to prevent child maltreatment from ever occurring. But no one congregation, organization, or group can do this important work alone.

“Organizations like Prevent Child Abuse NC and others that are trying to unite us all can help lift your load so that you can do your part really well,” Baltezore said. “Use the people, organizations, and resources around you to support the areas you might not have strength or capacity.”

If you’re reading this and are inspired to get connected to other faith communities, Baltezore suggests an easy way to get started. At least once a month, get together with four or five people from different congregations in your community to pray, connect, and dream. You’ll soon learn what you can do together that you wouldn’t be able to do separately.

“When you build relationships, everything flows from there,” Baltezore said. “We just need each other…that’s common sense, right?”

Reverend LeDayne McLeese Polaski

Reverend LeDayne McLeese Polaski is Executive Director of MeckMIN – the Mecklenburg Metropolitan Interfaith Network. MeckMIN was founded in 1987 to work on service initiatives within the Charlotte/Mecklenburg area. Their main role in the community is to connect people across religious differences and work toward understanding, compassion and justice.

Over the past 14 months, MeckMIN has been hosting Zoom meetings to support faith communities in their efforts to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on the most vulnerable.

“We invite faith leaders and community leaders and nonprofit leaders to come together and share what they’re doing so it helps people who are doing that work to be aware of resources that are out there,” McLeese Polaski said.

On those calls, local pastors, rabbis, or nonprofit leaders would discover resources that would directly benefit the families they serve. Others were there to absorb, connect, and learn about existing organizations already meeting critical needs – and then find ways to be truly helpful – in a safe and meaningful way.

One way to help make sure all children thrive is by supporting families and helping make sure they’re able to meet their basic needs.

McLeese Polaski recalls a meaningful outcome from the MeckMIN meetings that helped families in her community meet a specific and vital need:

A local refugee support service was regularly on our calls. One call, when the national coin shortage began, they told the group that their families were struggling because they live in apartment complexes with coin operated laundry. We were all having a hard time getting our hands on coins, so it was not so much that they didn’t have the money, but they didn’t have the quarters to put in the machine to wash their clothes. So, we did a quarter drive and asked all of our houses of faith to call out to their members to ask them to bring in quarters. We gathered up all the quarters and got them all to refugee support services. They added the quarters as a part of their Wednesday food giveaway to their families by putting the coins in a laundry basket along with some basic cleaning supplies.

“What I love so much about the coin drive is that was such a specific need, but you have to know people really well to understand their needs,” McLeese Polaski said. “One of the things that we say a lot is you know all of our faiths call us to love our neighbor – and to love your neighbor you have to know your neighbor well.”

While McLeese Polaski says that MeckMIN’s mission isn’t to tackle child maltreatment, she recognizes the important role it plays in building caring connections and safe, stable, nurturing environments for Mecklenburg County’s children.

“If you don’t have support, if you don’t have community, it’s hard,” she said. “Helping people be aware of other’s needs, helping people be aware of resources, helping people be part of a strong and loving community – all of those are prevention mechanisms.”

When it comes to strengthening relationships in your community across all religions, these experts agree that leading with faith to build concrete supports is simple: get connected.

“I recommend some sort of regular way of creating connections, whatever that looks like – and keeping it simple,” she said. “It’s really amazing how it works.”

To learn more about our faith work click here or please contact Tracey O’Neal.