Student finds a home in new program at Manna House

June 1, 2011 by

Community college student Cindy Ponce weeds a flowerbed in front of Manna House of Prayer on a recent sunny morning.

Twenty-year-old Cindy Ponce has only one complaint after living among the Sisters of St. Joseph at Manna House of Prayer in Concordia for five months.

“There’s no one my age,” says the Belize native who’s studying business at Cloud County Community College. “I would like to have friends here to hang out with.”

It’s a mild complaint, one very much overshadowed Ponce says by all the good things about living at Manna House, but still one the sisters there have taken to heart. And it explains, in part, the creation of a new program to begin late this summer.

The sisters and staff at Manna House are turning one wing of their landmark building at East Fifth and Olive streets into St. Joseph Scholar House, a residence hall for women students from the local college.

“Cindy was living with us, and we were thinking about ‘community’ for her,” explains Sister Julie Christensen, at 29 the youngest member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia and one of the women who live at Manna House. “This just felt like something we could do.”

Sister Julie’s “this” is a program that focuses on education, service, leadership and “being your best person,” she says. At the same time, it gives young women students of all faiths — many, like Ponce, away from home for the first time — a chance to grow and learn about themselves without many of the distractions prevalent in dorm life on campus.

CINDY PONCE

When the opportunity to attend Cloud arose, Ponce was living with her parents and three siblings and attending Sacred Heart Junior College in San Ignacio, Belize, a tiny country tucked below Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula with Guatemala to its east and the Caribbean on its west.

She had gotten to know Christa Schmidt, a young woman from Axtell, Kan., who was working in Belize, and then met Christa’s parents, Giles and Roxie Schmidt. The elder Schmidts sponsored Ponce to come to the United States to attend Cloud, where their younger daughter Abby is also a student.

But living in the dorm at Cloud was too expensive, so the Schmidts worked out an arrangement with Manna House: Ponce has been there since January, and helps with chores and other shared tasks.

The cultural adjustment was not that difficult, Ponce says. Belize is the only Central American country that has English as its official language, so that was not a barrier for her. And she comes from a big family — another three siblings had already left home — so she was used to sharing her quarters.

She was also familiar with Catholic sisters. As a Catholic herself, she says, “I knew some sisters (in Belize) and I thought they’d be like that.” But she recognizes that some people may still harbor stereotypes about women religious. She says some of the other young women she’s met while at Cloud may be hesitant about even coming to visit her at Manna House, “but I tell them, ‘They are way more different than what you think!’”

Ponce says it took her just a couple of weeks to get over feeling like a “guest” of the sisters. “It didn’t take long for me to adapt to being here,” she recalls. “I just told myself this is home.”

And as she got more comfortable, she got to know the Manna House sisters and staff better. “I guess I didn’t expect them to be so funny, so caring and so loving,” she says now. “Yet I always have my own space. Whenever I want to do something on my own, there’s always a place for it.”

That’s the kind of experience the sisters hope other young women will have as residents of St. Joseph Scholar House.

There are rules — maintaining a grade-point-average of 3.3 or higher, sharing some chores (including cooking and kitchen duty), making a commitment to community service, as examples — but there are also the benefits of always having a quiet place to study, of being a part of a small community of women who care deeply about each other and of sharing a college experience with fellow students who are equally interested in their education and their place in the world.

There is also a benefit of cost: The fee for St. Joseph Scholar House is $1,800 a semester, compared to $2,150 for the least expensive dorm package at Cloud.

“We have so often worked with people in mid-life and older,” says Sister Betty Suther, administrator of Manna House. “This shifts us to younger people and allows us to share what we have with them.”

For Cindy Ponce, it seems to be working. She decided to take a break from classes this summer and is staying on as a volunteer at Manna until school begins again in August. She helps with meals — including making her favorite Belizean dish, rice and beans with chicken — plus working in the garden at the Nazareth Motherhouse, weeding the flower beds that surround Manna House and doing whatever other tasks the sisters need.

She has another two semesters at Cloud before she decides whether she’ll continue at a four-year school or return to Belize to begin a career.

Until then, Manna House is home. “Sister Betty met me when I first got here and welcomed me; she told me to make myself comfortable,” Ponce recalls with a laugh. “I am still welcomed and still comfortable.”

 

To learn more about St. Joseph Scholar House, go to www.mannahouse.org or call Sister Julie Christensen at 785/243-4428.

 

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Comments

2 Responses to “Student finds a home in new program at Manna House”

  1. Jeanette Wasinger, csj on June 9th, 2011 9:23 pm

    Who wouldn’t love Cindy? What a delightful and generous young woman! She will succeed wherever she goes. Her openness and acceptance is quite unusual, in my experience. She is living an inter-generational life, and she is life-giving to everyone!

  2. Beth Stover on May 31st, 2011 8:32 am

    What an exciting opportunity to share life with young students in college. Thanks to Manna House for opening their doors to meet this need.
    Sr. Beth

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