Street Ministry Leads
to NEW Life for Women

- by Lori Golaszewski

It began as a street ministry. Meals, clothing and homemade cookies were handed out to the homeless and unemployed in Flint, Michigan. One snowy January afternoon, however, the makings of a new ministry were revealed. Carol Weber, OP, one of the members of the street ministry team, was approached by a Good Samaritan seeking newborn clothing for a woman who had given birth in an abandoned, unheated building. The new mother was also in need of a car seat. By chance, or perhaps through divine intervention, one had been donated the week before to St. Luke's Parish, which operates the street ministry.

Sister Carol Weber, center, enjoys her role as director of the N.E.W. Life Center.

"We were wondering what we would ever do with the car seat, but we kept it, and we knew then the reason we had the car seat," Sister Carol remarked. "I also knew then that we had to do something more than bring food and clothing to people on the street, so that's when we began talking and praying about what the next step might be."

The next step turned out to be the N.E.W. (North End Women's) Life Center and After-school Program, a safe haven where mothers and grandmothers receive the help they need to be self-sufficient providers for the children they are raising. The women, who are primarily African-American, participate in a three-year program that offers life skills geared toward improving the health and well-being of themselves and their children. "We help them become more sustainable, not dependent," Sister Carol, the center's director, said.

Each Wednesday the women gather for activities designed to build their parenting and homemaking skills as well as their self-esteem, while their children participate in tutoring and daycare programs. The women are taught proper nutrition and how to prepare well-balanced meals, how to clean and sew, how to budget their finances and how to search for employment — skills they never learned from their own parents or caregivers. Most of the women in the program are at the poverty level and had unstable upbringings.

"The women come from single-parent families, they come from large families, and they're taught how to survive rather than how to live," Sister Carol explained. "I don't know any of them who have any amount of money. They don't have cars, they walk or take the bus here. We pick up some of the women, and we pick up the children so they can be here for the after-school program. But they're happy people, and they're faith-filled people, and they always talk about being blessed."

"The women are excited by and open to what they're hearing," Sister Carol continued, "and for some of them, they've never heard these things in their lives, and we're talking some very basic things, like nutrition and how to make healthy food choices for themselves and their children. Their response is that they never felt that anyone took an interest in them before."

The N.E.W. Life Center fosters
the health and well-being
of women and their children.

A major focus of the program is helping the women with their communication skills so they can effectively interact with their children without getting angry or violent. "Children's Health Services partner with us, and they do a significant amount of role playing where the child becomes the mother and the mother becomes the child," Sister Carol explained. "One woman said she learned so much from the experience that her relationship with her daughter has completely changed for the better."

Group counseling also gives the women an opportunity to communicate their feelings and discuss any challenges they are facing in their daily lives. Because they are in a supportive environment, the women have learned not only what it means to be listened to, but how to be respectful when it is another person's turn to share. Sister Carol said that it's often in group counseling that she sees the progress being made by participants. "Their attitudes are more positive, the way they interact with people is much more positive, and they're about listening and responding rather than everybody talking at once."

Given that the N.E.W. Life Center has been in operation for two and a half years, Sister Carol has come to know the women well, especially since there are only 10 participants. To ensure that each person receives individual attention, no more than 12 women are accepted into the program. Sister Carol said she enjoys her relationships with the women, and is surprised by the amount of trust they place in her. "I'm not of their culture, but it doesn't matter," Sister Carol said. "Their trust is immense, and I'm in awe of it."