The South End Community Outreach Center was started by Rev. John U Miller in the 1980s as a way to serve those in need living in Albany's South End neighborhood. As part of this mission, Rev. Miller would frequently travel to the Albany County Jail to visit South End women and men who had been arrested on a variety of felony, misdemeanor, and petty larceny charges.
In 2002, Rev. Miller met Leslie Phalen while the two were serving as Board members for the Capital Area Council of Churches. Realizing a shared interest, Rev. Miller invited Leslie to accompany him on his visits to the Albany County Jail. Rev. Miller also took the time to introduce Leslie to numerous judges, prosecutors, public defenders, and the District Attorney. By establishing professional relationships with these individuals, both Rev. Miller and Leslie were able to advocate in court for sentence reductions (when warranted by circumstances unknown to defenders and judges) and to suggest alternative sentencing (for example, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, anger management counseling, drug court, or community service).
By 2005, Rev. Miller's church no longer had the funding for his regular mailings to those incarcerated. It was at this point that Leslie took over and sent religious materials and supplied commissary funds whenever possible. Rev. Miller passed away in 2010 and Leslie was asked by the District Attorney and Albany Chief of Police to continue his commitment to Social Justice.
Today, Leslie has expanded the programming offered by the South End Community Outreach Center. Visits and services continue for those incarcerated, services are provided to their loved ones, and the program now assists with reentry services to help newly released individuals who are looking for housing and employment.
In addition, a thrift store, "The Anchor," was opened in the 2010s to supply much needed household goods, clothes, toys, furniture, and books to members of the community. Other services include free trips for children and adults (2-3 times per year), a school supply and blanket giveaway day (in September), free baskets for Thanksgiving and Easter, and a "Community Store Christmas Day" to help ensure everyone has a Merry Christmas.
First Congregational has partnered with the South End Community Outreach Center since 2012 and looks forward to many more opportunities to improve the lives of our neighbors living in Albany's South End.