04/12/2018

St. Mary’s Community Center offers programs, such as benefits assistance and eye care, to help those in need

Kiara Rhodes admittedly struggled in school her whole life. When she was old enough, the Savannah resident dropped out.

But Kiara knew if she wanted to follow her dreams of working in the medical field helping children she had to continue her education. Her godmother told her about the free GED program offered at St. Mary’s Community Center.

Kiara Rhodes
Kiara Rhodes

“I think it’s easier than high school because basically all my life I struggled with public schools, and I was trying to find something to help me,” Kiara says. “This is at your pace and it’s up to you when you want to take the test.”

GED classes are just one service offered at St. Mary’s Community Center, which is a community outreach initiative of St. Joseph’s/Candler. The center is located in the Cuyler-Brownsville neighborhood and serves many individuals and families from Savannah’s poorest census tracts. The center strives to accompany people to improve their quality of life by providing:

  • GED classes
  • Preparation for Savannah Technical College entrance exam
  • Job readiness skills including assistance with job searches, job applications, resumes/cover letters and interviewing
  • Public benefits assistance for SNAP, Medicaid and senior citizens utility discounts
  • Eye clinic with free eye exams and low-cost eyeglasses
  • Free tax preparation in January and February each year

On an average day, the center assists 200 to 300 people between walk-ins and phone calls, says Linda Youth, St. Mary’s Community Center coordinator. Among the more popular services are public benefits assistance and the eye clinic.

Public Benefits Assistance

Filling out paperwork to file for or renew benefits can be a long and confusing process. To help those in need, St. Mary’s Community Center has two employees that can assist with applications and problem solving when applying for SNAP (food stamps), Medicaid, senior citizen utility discounts and CAPS (subsidized child care).

Benefits counselors help with about 250 applications per month. SNAP benefits must be renewed every six months, while other benefits have to be renewed once a year.

Eye Clinic

St. Mary’s has many wonderful collaborative partners. Among them are Georgia Eye Institute and Georgia Lion’s Lighthouse Foundation.

Once a month, in partnership with the Georgia Lion’s Lighthouse Foundation, an eye clinic is put on to offer free eye exams for the uninsured based on income, says Artinique Thomas, eye care coordinator. Because space is limited, appointments are required. Retired Georgia Eye Institute ophthalmologist Dr. Henry Croci examines 25 to 35 patients during one clinic, Thomas says. Georgia Eye Institute ophthalmologists Dr. Matthew Deich and Dr. Jennifer Bromley also treat St. Mary’s Health Center patients at their offices free of charge.

“I get dozens of calls a day about the eye clinic,” Thomas says. “It’s usually people who never had an eye exam and their sight is getting progressively worse. Now that they can’t read the Bible or see where they are driving, they know it’s an issue and they call us for help.”

Sr. Paula Cockerham
Sr. Paula Cockerham, RSM, counselor

In addition to the eye clinic, St. Mary’s Community Center can assist with low-cost glasses for uninsured individuals. On a day separate from the eye clinic, clients can bring in their prescription to be fitted for glasses. Glasses are typically $10 (single, bifocal or trifocal) but can cost as much as $60 (progressives, hi-index), Thomas says.

Appointments are required for the eye clinic and eyeglass fittings. Call 912-447-0578 to see if you qualify and schedule an appointment.

GED classes

St. Mary’s partners with Savannah Technical College to offer free GED classes. Classes are taught Monday through Thursday 9 a.m. to noon. John Palmer, from Savannah Technical College, and Sr. Paula Cockerham, RSM, counselor at St. Mary’s, teach the majority of the class.

There are currently about 15 students regularly attending and most have an education level between 10th and 12th grade, Sr. Cockerham says.

“So many of them come here because there’s more of a community atmosphere here,” Sr. Cockerham says. “Not that there’s anything wrong with other programs, but I think there’s more of an impression that this is more of a home as opposed to a school.

“So many people come to the community center for many services and when they see the sign that is prominently posted downstairs that we have free GED, they want to come here because they’ve experienced coming here for other services and they know they are respected and well cared for.”

The GED program is free of charge and open to anyone. Students are tested after every 40 hours of class time to monitor their progress. Practice GED tests are available, and students can take the GED exam when they are ready.

“I think St. Mary’s Community Center has really helped me a lot, especially the GED program because it’s very comforting and welcoming,” Kiara Rhodes says. “I would recommend this to anybody who thinks high school is not for them to come get their GED here.”

For more information about any of the programs at St. Mary’s Community Center, call 912-447-0578 or visit our website

  • St. Joseph's Hospital Campus: 11705 Mercy Blvd., Savannah, GA 31419, (p) 912-819-4100
  • Candler Hospital Campus: 5353 Reynolds St., Savannah, GA 31405, (p) 912-819-6000
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St.Joseph's Hospital Campus: 912-819-4100

Candler Hospital Campus: 912-819-6000