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Family center's Bible in hand worth two Bushes

| Friday, March 4, 2005, 12:00 p.m.

The Providence Family Support Center on the North Side has modest needs: diapers, a microwave oven, facial tissue and surge protectors.

On Monday, staff members of the Marshall-Shadeland center, which provides services for children and their parents, will get something they could never have wished for: a visit by President Bush and first lady Laura Bush.

"It's very exciting to me, but also very exciting to other organizations all over Pittsburgh. It brings attention to the work that a lot of them are doing," Sister Maria Fest said Thursday.

Sister Fest is executive director of Providence Connections Inc., which runs the North Side support center, a child care center in Castle Shannon and a safe house in Clarion County for victims of domestic violence.

The White House informed Sister Fest three weeks ago that a ''special guest'' was interested in dropping by the center, operated by the Sisters of Divine Providence, based in McCandless.

During the past week -- she won't say exactly when, in accordance with White House instructions -- she found out who the special guests would be.

The center wants to give the president and Mrs. Bush a fitting welcome, Sister Fest said. Right now, she's awaiting further instructions from the White House.

"I hope that (the president's visit) is going to bring attention, not to just our faith-based initiative, but also to those all over Pittsburgh," she said.

Bush has been a strong supporter of funding social services provided by religious groups. The Providence center, however, has never qualified for any funding from the White House's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives because the center never fit into its funding categories, Sister Fest said.

The center hopes it can now qualify for federal funding because it has added a program to help youngsters ages 12-16 from low-income families by focusing on academics, drug avoidance and preventing teen pregnancy, Sister Fest said.

Ginger Underwood, a parent volunteer at the family support center, hopes the president's visit will bring more financial resources to programs that help working families.

"There should be more centers like Providence," said Underwood, whose 8-year-old son attends its after-school program. "Hopefully, more opportunities and more funding will come not only to the center but also to other organizations that provide quality service to families."

Sister Fest has met the president before. She visited the White House in 2003 -- the same night she saw him deliver his State of the Union Address before Congress.

Her center's work has been noticed by Jim Towey, director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. As guest speaker at the center's dedication in October 2002, he touted the center as the kind of faith-based program that works.

"That's when he got a nice feel for the center, because he interacted with the families," Sister Fest said.

Housed in the former St. Leo's Church on Brighton Road, the center was established in 1995. It provides early childhood development, day care, after-school programs and parenting classes. During the past year, the center has provided intensive services for 42 families, including 40 children younger than 6.

The president's visit will add a real measure of excitement to the celebration of its 10th anniversary, Sister Fest said.

About a third of the organization's $1.4 million annual budget comes from the Divine Providence Foundation, but Sister Fest said she needs more outside funding to sustain programming over the long haul.

The center can accommodate up to 60 children with its gym, classrooms, art and computer facilities. The center provides needy families with child care, after-school programs, parenting and family programs and summer camp.

It is one of 26 centers of its kind under contract with the Allegheny County Department of Human Services. The county pays the center $100,000 to send counselors to homes to teach parenting skills.

"They serve families, and they serve families well," said Leslie Richer, the Human Services administrator who oversees outreach and prevention services. "They help families to become more self-sufficient."

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