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NUN WHO RUNS CENTER FOR JOY FINDS PLENTY OF NEED

Sister Beth Niederpruem does it all.

During the morning, she writes grants, seeks donors and sorts through the needs of the 100 or so families that receive help from the Center for Joy, a nonprofit organization she has directed for about seven years.

The center is in an unassuming two-story house at 1117 Michigan Ave., just down the block from Henry F. Abate Elementary School. It is a neighborhood gathering place, practically a community den.

From a computer room where guests take courses to get a GED to a playroom for young children where parenting classes are given, it's a place families know they can turn to for virtually anything.

On a recent Monday, cookies with yellow frosting and sprinkles, and small bottles of juice were laid out waiting to be devoured by the first-, second- and third-graders expected to arrive at any moment.

Sometimes Niederpruem, a Williamsville native who is part of the Order of Saint Francis there but now lives in the Falls, plays her 30-year-old Yamaha guitar for them so she can take a break from the phone calls and paperwork.

What did you do before you came here?

Immediately before, I worked at Heart and Soul (Soup Kitchen) in Niagara Falls. I also worked as a teacher, retreat director and development director. I was a teacher at Turner-Carroll High School and elementary Catholic schools in the area. Then I went to St. Columban's Retreat Center in Derby, N.Y., and worked as development director there, too, so I have a variety.

How did you come to work here?

Our community sold Mount St. Mary's Hospital, and we had started the nursing school at Niagara University, so we always had a presence here in the Falls. Have there been many changes since you arrived?

I think some of the programs change with the personnel and volunteers we get. If someone likes gardening, then the garden starts blooming. If someone likes knitting, then you have a knitting club. So it changes with the seasons and volunteers, but I'd say the main focus has always been getting out information to people, referrals to people, education opportunities to people.

What type of referrals do you give?

Anything. Housing, health care, medical, social services of any type.

You're in a place where many can walk to visit, though.

Exactly. You're not far from anything as far as the people go. We get mostly phone calls now. You know, everybody's got a cell phone.

How many volunteers do you have?

We have quite a few from the Learn and Serve grant program at Niagara University, then I get some from foster grandparents at HANCI. Other various organizations would call to say they are coming to help clean the yard, some Girl or Boy Scout troop, high school kids that need service for Confirmation class.

Depends on what the need is.

What are your needs?

Basically, what we need is educational material. Cash is good. (she laughs). Can the candy and pass the cash.

Last year, we painted, so we had some volunteers that helped with painting. Not everyone can paint, though, so we stained the swing set in the back yard. Grass-cutting, lawn mowers, that type of thing.

Someone gave me a couch to replace the one that's down in the front. There are no springs in it, so don't sit in it.

What do most people who come here need?

A lot of parenting classes. The children need to have someplace that they can do their homework and have decent tutoring. It's good mentoring.

What about the after-school program? When you say the parents want them in a safe environment, does that mean they would otherwise be going home alone?

Yeah, and they know that they're getting some remediation with the homework. We help them with their projects, and we have computers here.

What is the need of the city as a whole?

The problem has been that we've had a lot of decrease in population, and so you've got a lot of other institutions that are gone. You don't have to look too far down Main Street, and the heavy industry is gone.

This is like a community living room, right?

Yes. It's a community resource. At the turn of the century in Chicago and New York, before social workers even were invented, they were called settlement houses. They appeared because the immigrants needed places -- they all spoke different languages -- to help each other. These were in their neighborhood and they were houses that helped people get services they needed. The famous one is the Jane Hull House in Chicago.

Niederpruem said that while some modern "settlement houses" take on citywide tasks, she has focused on cleaning up her own section of the city. Last year, she successfully lobbied the city to have a home across the street that was vacant and becoming a fire trap demolished, and she has made friends with the immediate neighbors.

What do you think about the new pope?

I just think that you have to give everyone a chance and I believe in the Holy Spirit as far as the cardinals choosing a pope.

Does the papacy have much effect on what goes on at Center for Joy?

Not directly because we're really a nondenominational entity. I just happen to be a sister of St. Francis. We don't affiliate with any one church or sect.

To make a donation or learn more, contact the Center for Joy at 282-7588.

e-mail: gnorheim@buffnews.com