PROVIDENCE — As the director of the St. Martin de Porres Center in Providence, Linda A’Vant-Deishinni is used to people having preconceptions about just how much a senior center has to offer.
“It’s not just about bingo, cards and crochet,” A’Vant-Deishinni says. “We really have to do our best to figure out what people need and find ways to help them appropriately.”
Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the St. Martin de Porres Center, meaning that for five decades seniors throughout the diocese have been coming to the center for daily meals, health and wellness checkups, assistance preparing their taxes, exercise or craft lessons – and yes, sometimes a little bingo as well.
“Although we fill such a huge void in the community, our mission is actually pretty simple” says Linda Loxley, St. Martin’s resident case manager. “We want to make sure that — regardless of your religion, your gender, or your race — you’re going to leave here at least a little bit better than you were when you came in.”
Like many other ministries in our diocese, the St. Martin de Porres Center benefits directly from the generous support of those who contribute to the annual Catholic Charity Appeal.
One of the most significant services provided by the center is aid in navigating the healthcare system. Sandra Frisby, a retired nurse with three decades of experience at Rhode Island Hospital, volunteers her medical assistance at the center every week. “God gave me the ability to help people, and the St. Martin de Porres Center gives me a place to do it,” Frisby says of her service. In addition to providing medical screenings, Frisby and other volunteers help seniors schedule doctor’s appointments, manage their insurance and lead healthy and independent lives.
Of course, one of the keys to staying healthy is staying active, and Elliott Clement knows how difficult exercise can be for those afflicted with arthritis and chronic pain. Clement leads the exercise program at St. Martin’s, and has designed a regimen that maximizes therapeutic value while minimizing complication.
“We meet three times a week, and we use absolutely no special machinery,” Clement says. “I want to make sure that all of the exercises we do here can be done just as easily back home.”
The reason Clement is so familiar with the challenges seniors often face in maintaining a regular exercise routine is because he, like many volunteers at the center, belongs to the category himself. “Originally, I just came here to take the class myself,” he explains. “But then the lady that had been giving the lessons had to leave, and I guess I somehow got promoted.”
Not all of the volunteers at the center are seniors, however — and neither are all of the people who take advantage of St. Martin’s services. Since the 1980s, the center has also served as a major hub for the small but vibrant Hmong community in the diocese.
“When we first came to America after the Laotian Civil War, not many of us were Christian,” recounts Hue Her.
“It was in the St. Martin’s chapel that many of us learned about the faith and were eventually baptized, so even though we all belong to different parishes now, the center is still really special to us.”
Because of this historical connection, local Hmong Catholics still flock to the center for fellowship: children come for both CCD classes and to learn about Hmong language and culture, while adults come to celebrate Mass in their native tongue. According to Her, there are 36 Hmong families who still make regular use of the St. Martin’s Center.
Although A’vant-Deishinni is proud to say that St. Martin’s offers all of these services free of charge, she admits that there are still many expenses which need to be met.
“One of the challenges we’re facing right now is that the roof really needs repair work,” she says. “We’d also really like to have some work done to help make the center more accessible to handicapped people. The building wasn’t originally designed with seniors in mind, so we’d love to have wheelchair ramps installed and maybe make the bathrooms more handicap-friendly,” she adds.
Those who want to help the St. Martin de Porres Center are also encouraged to contact the center to learn about volunteer opportunities. A’vant-Deishinni says that volunteers with a medical background are particularly needed, though the center also could use additional greeters and companions for seniors who visit the center.
To make an online donation or learn more about the Catholic Charities appeal, please visit