by Marc Cicero/The York Street Project
The Star-Ledger (online)
Wednesday May 7, 2008

“God hides where the poor are.”

York Street Project

Sister Helen Prejean visits students at Kenmare High School, a program of the York Street Project.

That was the message delivered by Sister Helen Prejean last week in a talk at the York Street Project in Jersey City, a nonprofit social service organization that provides economically-disadvantaged women and children with housing, education, early childhood development care, counseling and life-skills training.

Prejean, a Louisiana-based nun whose work as a spiritual advisor to death row inmate Patrick Sonnier was the subject of the Oscar-award winning film Dead Man Walking, was invited to speak at the York Street Project’s annual fundraiser. She is a national advocate for the abolition of the death penalty.

“What happens to one of these the least among us happens to us all. Sister Helen was invited because she knows how to connect the dots in the life stories of the poor,” stated Sister Kristin Funari, Executive Director of York Street Project. “Her passion for the poor and those who wait on death row is so closely connected to the lives of the women and children we serve. It is the poor who bear a disproportionate burden of under representation in so many areas of life: the criminal justice system, decent housing, quality education and health care.”

Prejean said her early work in the housing projects of Louisiana introduced her to the plight of thousands living in poverty across the country.

“I began to see life on the underside. I began to see the other America,” she said.

In Hudson County, more than 2,800 individuals struggle to survive on the streets, emergency shelters, motels, or in transitional housing programs according to the 2007 Hudson County Point-In-Time homeless count conducted by the Hudson County Alliance to End Homelessness.

The York Street Project helps the poor by addressing interrelated needs including transitional housing, early childhood development care, and education, Prejean said, remarking on her visit to Kenmare High School, the alternative high school within the York Street Project.

“Do you know how happy it was to today to go into that school and see five or six young women sitting around there beginning to get their education with teachers who love them and who are going to help them? What a joy that is, what a difference it makes,” she said.

Prejean also praised New Jersey for being the first state to abolish the death penalty.

“I think the saving grace for you as a state was that there were sixty-two victim’s families that came to those hearings all of whom had lost a loved one who said to you, the people - do not kill for us. You will not honor our loved one by having the State kill another human being.”

She closed her remarks with a reflection on the York Street Project. “You know that this is a community where the hand reaches out and where a difference is being made. Children are loved, people can come to a school, and they have a home with their children,” she said. “It’s one of the holiest places in this city.”

Marc Cicero is the manager of communications and grants for the York Street Project. He is also a board member of Team Charity.