AN UNDER-THE-RADAR LIFELINE: Without much fanfare but with great effectiveness, Diana Burdette soon will have the Providence In-Town Churches Association responsible for delivering nearly one-quarter of the food pantry meals in Rhode Island.
As homelessness and food insecurity have continued to rise in Rhode Island, so have the resources and determination of the Providence In-Town Churches Association under the leadership of Executive Director Diana Burdette. PICA serves the capital city’s homeless, poor and elderly in need of help through its food pantry, daily meal site and other outreach programs.
“Her effectiveness reflects her political and social intelligence. But her strength comes from a deeply rooted faith in human dignity,” said PICA board member Peter McClure. “Diana’s and PICA’s ability to serve so many people with compassion and dignity continues to fly under the radar of most decision-makers in Providence.”
Burdette has been named a Woman To Watch in social services for the 2013 Business Women Awards program of Providence Business News.
Burdette, who has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from University of Rhode Island, was hired in 2003, when PICA was a small, part-time agency. In the last decade, PICA has gained wide respect from public and private agencies working to improve the lives of poor and homeless people of Rhode Island.
With a modest annual budget of $275,000, PICA runs the state’s largest food pantry, distributing food to 8,000 people a month, half of them children. On July 1, it will take on the responsibility for a second large pantry, in Olneyville, ultimately feeding 23 percent of the 66,000 people in Rhode Island who use food pantries.
When the Rhode Island Community Food Bank and Olneyville Housing lost their major sponsor, they asked if PICA would take on the established, 15-year-old pantry. Burdette and her board agreed to help create the PICA Olneyville Food Center.
“One large pantry in the area had already closed, and I didn’t want people in that area to lose another one,” Burdette said. “People working full time at minimum-wage jobs have approximately $300 a month left over after paying rent. Food stamps run out after about two weeks, so pantries help free up money for rent and utilities.”
PICA serves a sit-down dinner every Friday to 225 to 250 people and has a program to deliver food to home-bound people. It also operates medic clinics and helps supply clothing, toiletries, prescription assistance and bus passes.
PICA operates an outreach program for homeless people, helping to empower clients to achieve housing, employment and health goals. One outreach program helps homeless recipients of Social Security insurance navigate the process of receiving benefits.
Burdette explained that among the services “the fact that all of the programs are client centered, rather than agency based,” is what makes her most proud.
Burdette has been recognized nationally for participating in a team of the Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ to develop a program called “How to Become an Economic Justice Church.”
The job at PICA is part of a professional and personal faith journey that has taken Burdette from working as justice and peace organizer for the United Church of Christ, Congregational Churches in New England to her current post. “My job was to empower church people to move from doing [direct services] to doing advocacy for, and then empowerment of, the people we are called to serve,” she said. •