Woman Power St. Margaret’s House

By+Shelly M. Kurz

A long time ago she set off with a dream. She had so much hope for her future. She went to college, she started her career, she was on track. Then something happened. She lost her job and the prospects of another just weren’t there for her. Before long, the money she had saved was gone. Without an income, she couldn’t pay her rent and without rent, she had nowhere to live. The throes of poverty were closing in faster and faster and it didn’t take long for depression to consume her. She reached a point where she could barely function. One day turned into one week and one month and one year and before she knew it, nearly 20 years of her life had passed by.

Those days are a past life. Today, she is back in the work force and she didn’t have to limit her job options to those that fell along the bus route either. She bought a car and she has her own apartment. As for that depression that immobilized her all those years, it’s no longer plaguing her life. “Poverty is depressing,” she says. And poverty is no longer forecasting her future.

How did she turn her life around? With talent and inner strength she didn’t know she had, determination, desire, hope and a little help from the women of St. Margaret’s House.

Tucked away in a corner of downtown South Bend is St. Margaret’s House. It’s a place where some very strong, determined women come together to make a difference, not only in their own lives, but in the lives of others as well. These women come to this place to give back what they can and offer support and assistance to those who need it. “I think one of the best things St. Margaret’s House does is help women recognize and believe in their very best self so they can move forward, whatever way that is. We help them try to define themselves by their gifts and talents instead of by their problems,” says Kathy Schneider, Executive Director.

St. Margaret’s House opened in 1990 as a safe day center for women and their children who were struggling with poverty. It offered them a hot meal, a shower, clean clothes and a sense of community. Over the years, it has not only grown in the number of women and children it serves each day, but also in the programs and services it makes available. More than 80 women and children come to St. Margaret’s house every day for lunch. Many of them get even more involved with long-term programs such as classes on parenting, self-empowerment, health and economic stability. Other programs include AIDS education, art and nondenominational spirituality. Even those who aren’t currently involved in a class benefit from the supportive community that St. Margaret’s House provides. Through new friendships and the help of lending hands, women find reprieve from the burden of isolation that often accompanies single parenthood, mental or physical health issues or a history of sexual or physical abuse. “The women really take ownership of this place, they have a strong sense of belonging,” says Kathy. “I think that’s what sets us apart. We don’t claim to have a full staff that helps these women move forward. They take their lives into their own hands and help themselves move forward. We’re here to support them but the women of St. Margaret’s House are also here to support each other. It’s women helping women and sometimes the best person to help is not a staff person, but the woman sitting next to you at lunch.”

Empowering women by helping them discover their inner strengths and talents has been a cornerstone of the foundation of St. Margaret’s House since the beginning. One of the most empowering programs today is a cottage industry that began in 2006 called Silk Creations. Every Friday afternoon, the art studio at St. Margaret’s House is occupied by about eight women who have studied and learned the meticulous techniques of painting on silk. Not only do they create beautiful hand-painted silk scarves, ties, pillows, handbags and greeting cards, but they are also fostering their creativity, developing leadership skills, enhancing their work ethic and learning successful interpersonal communication and behavior. The women are also responsible for selling their creations at local art fairs, festivals and bazaars so they work together as a team to develop business plans, act as representatives of their project and create ongoing plans to build future business. “Women who once defined themselves as ‘otherwise’ now define themselves as artists,” claims Kathy.

While the women of St. Margaret’s House are learning new ways to empower themselves and their lives, the children of St. Margaret’s House are also learning. During the summer, three full time volunteers work with the kids while their mothers or babysitters are involved in programs or chores. It is not a daycare, but the children are supervised and there are many activities to keep them engaged. They even get to go on field trips to Notre Dame, Potawatomi Zoo and Coveleski Stadium to see the Silver Hawks play.

St. Margaret’s House is supported solely by donations and grants. Although they have two main fundraisers each year, the Winter Walk in February and Fashioning Our Lives luncheon and fashion show in November, they are always in need of such items as toiletries and gently used clothing for the Clothes Closet. “We give out about 180 bags of toiletries a month and every family is allowed 15 items a month from the Clothes Closet and that’s totally dependent on donations,” says Kathy.

In addition to nearly 120 volunteers who share such responsibilities as cooking, reception work and sorting donations, Kathy has eight full and part time employees. “I have a wonderful staff who honestly believe in the mission of St. Margaret’s House. It’s a ministry of hospitality and I think we are doing God’s work every day. When you do that, you see miracles happen every day.”


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