OAKLAND, Calif. - Inside St. Mary’s Center in Oakland, you will find people playing a game of dominoes, enjoying an easy conversation, and often a shared meal. Some are strangers but you will find people who will tell you that over time, they have become friends, and some now consider themselves family.
For 50 years, St Mary’s Center has become a well-known resource in the West Oakland community.
"I refer to St. Mary's as my family," Anne Bradley said. "This is one of my families for sure."
Jesse Williams agreed, "I’m part of the family now. I feel like I am."
Bennie Whitfield Jr. told KTVU that he heard about the center through word of mouth.
"Word of mouth is good, especially when you have a good experience," said Whitfield. "I had a story to tell. And those who knew I told it everywhere I went. I told them I got a place called Saint Mary’s."
Keith Arivnwine said for him St. Mary’s was a lifeline.
"I wish people would like really see St. Mary is the way I do, because for me, St. Mary's is a beacon, like a lighthouse with a bright shining light that helped to guide me back to reality during some of the darkest times in my life," said Arivnwine.
A beacon in the dark, for two of our most vulnerable populations, preschool aged children and our seniors.
The Center’s director Sharon Cornu told us they hope people feel welcome.
"We hope people know that St. Mary's is a welcoming place where they can come when they're in need and we'll do our best to help them meet their basic needs, but also to help them be a part of community and to look to the future with hope, to heal and to seek justice through advocacy work," said Cornu.
St. Mary’s has served as a soup kitchen, a shelter, a community center, and is now a transitional housing provider, but when you talk to the people it serves, what you hear over and over again is about the human connection they all have found in this place.
Anne Bradley said she came when she was in crisis.
"St. Mary's was one of the first places after I had my psychotic episode and I got out and I got help for it and I was homeless," said Bradley
"Before I came, you know, I am I had a rough time," James Paul Hopkins said. "I had a rough time in the streets".
They came because they felt alone. Jesse Williams said he needed human interaction and figured people his age would be the best option."
Carey Whiteside said he came because he knew he could get a good meal.
"When I turned 55, I basically was just coming for the food at noon cause you get all kind of vegetables and sweets and meat and stew," said Whiteside.
They all stayed they say because they had hope.
Arivnwine, recalls meeting with a St. Mary's counselor who said, "Okay, so you just got out of prison? I said, yes, you say, so what do you want to do with the rest of your life? And at that moment, everything changed and then everything started to come together."
People who used the center remember how they were treated with compassion.
Bennie Whitfield Jr. said, "I was greeted with a worker, her name with Jackie. I told her my story about my mother died shortly before I came and everything. You know, she cried with me. Oh. Oh, I love that woman. Well, she had empathy. Yeah. And she showed it"
Without that kind of compassion, Arivnwine said, "I’m sure I probably would have went back to what I was familiar with drugs, dramatic, and the lifestyle I chose to live before I came here."
And when they stayed, they found community.
James Paul Hopkins said, "I started staying down here and like playing dominoes, you know, they had people down and it was a safe place to come."
The seniors we talked to take classes here attend historical field trips, they have joined leadership groups and they traveled to the capitol to advocate for others in need.
"I’m not a good speaker," Whiteside said. "No words, but it helps to get that out. What I see and what people need has to tell us about it is really can help people who's running for governor, who's run for mayor to talk to them. And it really helps."
Five decades after St. Mary’s first opened its doors, the need for a center like this grows, and so does St. Mary's. It is building housing across the street and developing new programs.
Those who know it best will tell you when it comes to St. Mary’s there's never too much of this good thing.
"I think St. Mary's for the next 50 years just keep doing what they doing," Arivnwine sayid. "But on steroids, just take it to a whole other level."