As rising unemployment and cutbacks in government-funded social services have combined to make tough economic times even harder for the women and children of rural Kansas, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia have a plan to reach out to them in new waysWith the purchase today (April 1) of a storefront in downtown Concordia, three sisters plan to open “Neighbor to Neighbor” by the end of the year.
The new center at 103 E. Sixth St., which formerly housed Conn’s TV & Appliance, will provide a wide array of services for women and their preschool children and be a resource center to help them find other services they need, said Sister Pat McLennon, one of the drivers behind the new project.
“You don’t see people on the streets here like you do in the big city,” Sister Pat said of Concordia, which has a population of about 5,300. “But the poverty here is severe.”
About 12 percent of Cloud County’s residents live in poverty, according to 2004 data from the U.S. Census Bureau. But that figure is slightly more than double for children younger than 5 — about 1 in 4 — based on figures from the most recent “Kids Count,” compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. For children of single mothers, that number spikes to 89 percent, or 9 out of 10.
Services offered at Neighbor to Neighbor will likely include nutrition and parenting classes, workshops on healthy living, personal counseling and information on what help is available through other agencies. The center will also have small facilities to meet what Sister Pat described as “basic needs” — showers, at least two washers and dryers and a small kitchen.
But, noted Sister Ramona Medina, another of the women behind the center, services and volunteer opportunities will be added and developed as the need for them is identified.
“Our first sisters met the needs of the time,” Sister Ramona said of the Sisters of St. Joseph who came to Concordia and founded the order in 1883. “These are the needs of our time — women and their children who may just need a safe place to connect with each other.”
One resource available to meet those needs are the sisters in Concordia themselves.
About 40 retired Sisters of St. Joseph live at the Motherhouse, which is the center of the sisters’ community. “We have retired teachers, counselors, caregivers… And they are excited about the chance to reach out to women in Concordia,” said Sister Jean Befort, the third women driving the Neighbors project. “They have a huge amount of experience — and maybe what they can do is read to children or rock babies.”
Work to renovate the two-story brick building on Concordia’s main downtown street is expected to begin soon. In the coming months, the sisters will seek grants and gifts to fund the renovation of the building, which is in good structural condition but will require extensive clean-up and remodeling to meet the sisters’ needs.
The three women began discussing the possibility of such a center more than a year ago, with the idea that each of the three would bring different experiences and strengths to the project. Included in those, they said, are Sister Pat’s eight years in a ministry serving the homeless in Oakland, Calif.; Sister Jean’s background in parish ministry and working at a women’s shelter in Spokane, Wash.; and Sister Ramona’s training as an occupational therapist and her passion for creating art.
They also met individually with social service agencies to ensure that their ideas would not duplicate services already available in Concordia. “They all talked about the needs of women and their children, and that there just wasn’t this kind of center available,” Sister Pat said. “Everyone we talked with supported the idea because they know the needs are growing.”
Earlier this year, the three made a proposal to the Leadership Council of the Sisters of St. Joseph, which then approved the purchase of the downtown building and the work required for the project.
The building was purchased at a foreclosure auction in mid March and finalized today (April 1).