In 1983, Rita Labombard began to address the needs of a New York City shelter for street youth that sometimes served 200 children on a single night. Routine items were needed—soap, shampoo, toothbrushes, socks, etc. These were collected by a Plattsburgh group and brought to Champlain, where Rita arranged for their delivery to New York City.
To fund the costs of trucking and overseas shipping, the center constantly sought help from donors and area carriers. In 1985, to help cover those expenses, the Mission Center added a thrift shop, offering second-hand toys, books, clothes, and household items. Those in need, including welfare recipients, were encouraged to visit.
That same year, an agreement was signed with Retired Seniors Volunteers Program (RSVP), adding the Mission Center as an official Volunteer Station so that seniors who worked there were credited with hours. Help would be at least somewhat easier to find in times of need.
In 1986, LaBombard prepared to help with another foreign crisis. The five-year war in Uganda had ended, but families returned to find homes, gardens, and fields destroyed. Until such time as they could grow food to feed large families, the need was urgent for everyday living items. The archbishop of that region had visited St. Mary’s Mission Center the year before and helped pack 30 barrels of clothing. He was now requesting that Rita find a way to deliver them.
She had arranged a special rate of $20 per barrel by ship, so it was now necessary to raise $600. Local donors responded, and at Rita’s request, a Plattsburgh firm agreed to truck more than 105,000 pounds to the New Jersey pier at no charge. A dozen barrels of important goods were added by LaBombard, bringing the total to 42. The results certainly touched the lives of thousands.
In 1988, as an additional fundraiser, the center’s thrift shop began offering high-quality donations, like Calvin Klein jeans, at very low prices. This move came just two month before the stunning announcement that Catholic Relief would no longer accept clothing shipments from the Mission Center. For decades, after each shipment to foreign missions, the center had trucked any leftover goods, usually many tons, to Catholic Relief, a relationship that now ended until further notice.
LaBombard thought she had seen it all in more than thirty years of work, but the news left her flabbergasted. She contacted Catholic Relief, but managers there were shocked as well. There was a greatly reduced demand for clothing, they said, but a dramatic increase in requests for food.
Still, the center was busy making regular shipments directly to missions in Africa, Jamaica, and South America. The difference was that now, any excess items remained stored at the center, which was soon filled to overflowing. It also affected the many satellite outlets in area towns where clothing was collected and then delivered in bulk to the center.
Without the services of Catholic Relief, there were risks in dealing with governments of unstable countries. Officials regularly intercepted shipments at the docks, selling the goods and keeping the profits. The fear was that Mission Center shipments would be stolen, wasting the work of so many volunteers.
A stateside solution was soon found—more than 65 Native-American reservations in Montana and the Dakotas, where most residents were poor and in need of help. Due to the harsh winter weather, warm and heavy clothing was in great demand. In 1989, with the help of more than a half-dozen local companies, the Mission Center filled a rail car with an estimated 12 tons of clothing. That eliminated much of the surplus that had been stored on site. They also sent shipments that fall to help those affected by Hurricane Hugo. And as always, aid was offered to nearby victims of house fires and other disasters.
In the early 1990s, shipments to Peru and South Africa ended due to security reasons and the inability to prevent theft. Still, many tons of clothing and other items were shipped each year to Jamaica and to reservations across the country.
In 1996, at age 72, Rita was still at it. Volunteers who came—to sort, fold, and pack clothes; to maintain and repair the facilities; to load trucks and do any other jobs—displayed enthusiasm for the work. That heartwarming fact was not lost on LaBombard, who had been at it herself for forty years. Perhaps, as she wished, St. Mary’s Mission Center would live on long after she was gone.
In 1997, the Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Ogdensburg bestowed upon her the Caritas Award for a lifetime of charitable works. In his comments, the diocesan director referred to her as “a great lay missionary in our midst.” Rita’s mother had died back in 1983 at age 94, and all the other founding members were gone as well. She accepted the honor with great humility, and urged others to work hard like her mother and the original six had done. “If you think your sacrifices too great, compare your comforts with those of the missionaries,” she said.
By 1999, the Mission Center was beset with unforeseen problems. Quality donations were still coming in, but with new rules and charges for using dumps, people resorted to other outlets to save money. With an influx of such “donations,” junk was beginning to outnumber the usable items dropped off at the center. The thrift shop was barely covering monthly fees to dispose of all the garbage at landfills.
At 75, Rita could no longer maintain her former workload. A recent fall-off in volunteers suggested more than ever that all along, she had been the heart and soul of the operation. The gradual decline continued, but help arrived in late 2002 in the person of a retired nun, Sister Solange Poutre, an energetic sort who worked at reorganizing and refurbishing the Mission Center. Volunteers were solicited and the effort was a success, much to Rita’s appreciation and relief.
In 2006, the Mission Center was still collecting clothing for the poor and needy, but Rita’s role was reduced as she entered her eighties. When she died in early February of this year, she had recently reached the age of 90.
The center is still operating today. The large thrift shop helps cover the cost of shipping a few tractor-trailer loads of clothing each year to warehouses in the United States for storage until needed to aid disaster victims. Efforts are also made regionally to assist veterans and the poor.
Based on records and annual estimates for 50 years beginning in 1957, the organization Rita founded, toiled for, and managed sent more than 500 tons (a million pounds!) of shipments to those in need. All of it—the fundraising, organizing, paperwork, repairing, sewing, sorting, folding, packing, loading, trucking—was done by or through her.
She was not the rah-rah type of leader, but instead quiet, humble, and dedicated, leading by example. What drew some in, or at least what drew me in long ago, was the sincerity and purity of her motive: doing good for goodness’ sake.
LaBombard’s life was not that of a modern woman. In fact, it was quite the opposite, molded in the tradition of religious devotion. She didn’t fight for suffrage, equal pay, or any other important issues. But among North Country women who had a positive impact on the greatest number of lives, most would stand in her shadow. And our history is much better for her existence. How many of us can say that?
She introduced thousands to the joys of unselfish giving. There were no financial benefits for those who volunteered time, money, equipment, or services. The payoff was that you always felt better just for having done it.
There’s no denying it. Rita LaBombard was truly inspirational.
Photo: Mission Center sign (FB page)