Hometown Heroes: Rita Collins' New Calling
By Dave Bontempo
Carole McCullough, Joanne Gallagher, Helen Bennett, Vera McQuillen, Anne Koch, Chickie Flora and Rita Collins celebrating Ice Cream Night at the Covenant House.
“You never know where God is going to put us,” says Rita Collins, the Sea Isle City Catholic Daughters Volunteer of the Year.
The Philadelphia native, who bought an investment property here in the 1980s and became a full-time Sea Isle City resident in 2008, walks an altered road. The classic golden-years life of a couple vanished with the death of her husband Paul in 2011. The passing of her sister, Tess Bell, this past December also tested her fortitude.
Yet Collins has not sat idly. She launched a community-volunteer journey in 2012, found there are many who need her help, and has become immersed.
Through St. Joseph Church in Sea Isle and friends on its Catholic Daughters of the Americas program, the largest Catholic women’s organization with membership exceeding 75,000, Collins pours energy into local charities. The Catholic Daughters platform includes feeding hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the elderly, helping the disabled and aiding efforts against human Rita Collinstrafficking.
Collins’ role entails obtaining meals, compiling gift baskets, making sandwiches, enlisting parishioner help and visiting shelters. It means attending meetings, coordinating resources and mirroring the job she once had, providing employees to hospitals from her Langhorne, Pa., nursing agency.
There is always a timely recipient. For Collins, April means helping Our Lady of Angels in Cape May Court House make and distribute 500 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Or preparing the food, setting it up, serving and cleaning up for the Hot Lunch/Dinner program at First Baptist Church in Wildwood. The young, the old, the elderly and the sick have a passionate place in her heart, including those at the Covenant House in Atlantic City, which aids trafficked youth in 31 cities and six countries.
Collins has helped that organization significantly with fundraising and visitations for several years.
Volunteers don’t seek notoriety, but the Sea Isle chapter of Catholic Daughters named Collins its top participant last year, from a field of about 125 members. It gave her a plaque and flowers, symbols of a deep level of giving back.
“It does more for me than the kids and the elderly,” Collins says. “It takes my breath away. Even in the midst of what I am doing, it’s a relief to focus on somebody else instead of myself. You can see that people are needy and I am happy to be able to give some of my time and money to help give someone a bit of joy for that day.
“There is a big army of us,” she says with a laugh. “You don’t really feel that an individual is doing the work. In this case, it’s just me, the Catholic Daughters and my buddy God. The gratification is knowing you can make a difference in other people’s lives. Most of us get the opportunity to eat whatever we want when we go in our own refrigerators or go out to eat. When you go to some places, you are fully aware that not everybody has those choices. When you leave a place after doing something to help, it is a wonderful, wonderful feeling. It makes your heart very happy.”
Collins supports establishments like The Branches Outreach Center in Rio Grande, a ministry of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Stone Harbor. The center began with coffee and conversation two days a week. It has grown into a six-days-a-week, multiple-activity outreach center.
She holds a special fondness for the Covenant House, a strong advocate for the homeless. Its efforts to change lives reached Collins’ antenna three years ago when Jennifer Williams, its senior manager for development, visited this area. Her speech on combating human trafficking sparked a special passion in Collins, who is surrounded by youth.
Her extended family includes three brothers, five sisters, 24 nieces and nephews, 44 great nieces and nephews and a great nephew who recently turned 1.
“Jennifer gave us a powerful message about something you think may happen only in another part of the world, but it happens here too,” Collins says. “Take a situation in which someone answers an ad about Super Bowl tickets, for example. The ad can attract a person, who goes somewhere thinking there will be tickets and they get snagged. That’s how they can become part of human trafficking. It could happen just like that to any one of my nieces, any of nephews.”
Collins’ “Covenant” with this organization grew steadily. Her group made up care bags with gift cards, pajamas, toothbrushes in 2015. They sent 50 bags, four boxes of food and $800 collected from the community. Summer visitors and parishioners then contributed nearly $3,000 the following year. Not to mention nine large bags of new clothing, casual shirts and pajamas. There was an ice-cream night, sponsored by Acme in Sea Isle City, a pizza night, sponsored by the Catholic Daughters. Last year saw $2,500 in cash and gift cards, 13 large bags of clothing, two laundry baskets, toiletries, shaving cream and the involvement of Bishop McHugh Regional School.
Collins coordinated the effort, which Williams considers invaluable. The nonprofit organization needs funding, and materials, to continue its work.
“Rita connected with us about three years ago,” Williams says. “She has spearheaded an effort with a group of five or six people and they put together these wonderful comfort bags with all brand-new items, whether that’s hygiene, clothing, flip-flops, etc.
“That began the relationship which has now grown, and every couple of months they will come hang out with the kids, serve a meal. They represent the hands and feet of Christ, showing the kids there are people who care about them. It shines through with the way they look at our children through a nonjudgmental eye. There is a sense of compassion for them, a sense of caring.”
Williams says a major goal of Covenant House is to prevent adult homelessness. Many teenagers, including single mothers, are housed there. They arrive from all over South Jersey. A majority come from situations involving a family breakdown, a lack of resources and the fact that home “can be a scary and unsafe place to be,” Williams adds.
“We help get them back on their feet. One significant factor is that when you come and provide a meal, or ice cream, or Christmas gifts, people realize they are not forgotten. They see that other people care. Volunteers like Rita realize the kids have dreams, talents, hopes and abilities and they reflect that belief back on them.”
Rita, the Catholic Daughters, and, as she says, “my buddy God.”