"The greater the work the more
important it is to establish it on
a solid foundation. Thus it will
not only be more perfect; it
will also be more lasting.”

St. Louise de Marillac

Visionary Women: Addressing Needs and Responding

By S. Georgia Kitt

In May 1997, S. Mary Jo Gasdorf founded The Women’s Connection, a neighborhood center to advocate for and refer people, especially women, to services they didn’t know were available.

The following article is a continuation in our series featuring Sisters of Charity who have responded to the current needs of the times and passed them on when the timing was right. The following article features S. Mary Jo Gasdorf and The Women’s Connection.

It wasn’t any one thing, but a combination of concerns coming together in her heart that gave impetus to S. Mary Jo Gasdorf founding The Women’s Connection (TWC) in Price Hill (Cincinnati) in 1997. She had always wanted to be a missionary, at home or abroad. In the summers, early in her junior high teaching experience, she offered volunteer time in Kentucky, coming to value the beauty and simple lifestyle of the Appalachian culture. She also carried with her childhood memories of the extreme poverty she observed when driving through the Kentucky hills when on family vacations. “They seemed so happy with very little materially,” S. Mary Jo remarked. It was a place where she wanted to return; however, before that could occur she was elected to Network leadership in 1976. Instead, she used her gifts to serve in various SC Community roles as Dayton provincial, novice director, vice president of life development and as a Leadership Council member.

The Chapter of 1994 challenged Sisters of Charity to stand with women and children … “taking concrete actions, personally and communally, to break the cycles of poverty and violence which disenfranchises women and fosters systemic oppression in church and society.” S. Mary Jo took this challenge to heart; she felt it in her very soul. She began a needs assessment and serious research. It was the right time to devote a task force to learn the needs of the working poor in Price Hill (Cincinnati), an area where the Sisters of Charity had lived and served since arriving in 1852. Over a two-year period, the task force looked to the African-American and Appalachian persons living there (and later the Hispanics) to identify needs, creating a research model for others’ use as well. In 1996 the research revealed that there were “more single moms in Price Hill than anywhere in the City of Cincinnati.” A neighborhood center to advocate for and refer people, especially women, to services they didn’t know were available seemed to be the call. 

Many Sisters of Charity, like S. Barbara Padilla (standing), offered their volunteer services to the programs at The Women’s Connection.

With a grant from the Sisters of Charity Ministries Initiatives Fund, S. Mary Jo listened to and learned from residents in the neighborhood what their needs were. These included leadership and employment skills, health care, support groups, counseling for abused women and children, parenting skills, mentoring, GED assistance, mental health services and appreciation for diversity. After the research The Women’s Connection (TWC) received a generous start-up grant from SC Ministry Foundation. S. Mary Jo will forever be grateful to task force members Sisters Marie Tessmer, Ramona Chisholm, Ruth Kuhn, Mary Grafe and Pat Saul along with Sister advisory members Mary Assunta Stang, Julia Mary Deiters, Patricia Malarkey and Martha Walsh as well as S. Maryanna Coyle and the SC Ministry Foundation for their ongoing support of the project as it took shape.

Listening to women was the right approach. In addition, learning was important. To further her own skills, S. Mary Jo volunteered at Bethany House, a transitional housing facility for women and children, participated in group discussions with women there as well as at Santa Maria and the Urban Appalachian Council. She convened a gathering of Sisters of Charity and Associates to discuss the assets and needs of the Price Hill area. Other women religious, clergy in the neighboring parishes and many lay leaders offered their input. She recruited her sister Jean Hasselbeck to help her canvass the area looking for a ‘store front’ building on a bus line for easy access.

S. Ann Hunt oversaw the Piecemakers group at The Women’s Connection, which brought together a group of women to make quilts for charity.

Twenty-five years ago this May, The Women’s Connection, a nonprofit agency, opened its doors at the corner of Glenway and Gilsey in Price Hill with a staff of two, four public computers, a copier, Internet and fax machine, and phones for people of the neighborhood to use. A Dominican Sister of Hope, S. Kathleen Hebbler, OP, was on board from the beginning, serving as associate director, grant writer and accountant. S. Ruth Hunt joined early on as the secretary and was an immense help at the time of the annual fund drives. An active Board of Trustees kept them focused on their mission: to be a neighborhood center providing support for change by educating, empowering and enriching women, children and families. S. Ann Hunt came aboard to oversee the Piecemakers program along with scrapbooking and basic machine sewing which were offered weekly. 

“From the beginning we focused on hope,” S. Mary Jo said, “and collaborative efforts with Seton and Elder high schools; sharing of space at St. Lawrence and St. William parishes was appreciated.” TWC became known for its annual health and job fairs, back-to-school and math discovery programs as well as the annual neighborhood Block Party.

All along the way, S. Mary Jo gave her energy, speaking to groups, raising awareness of community needs, seeking funding sources and developing an annual, recognized TWC fundraiser. She is particularly thankful to the Allens, David and Carol, and Pat Emmitt who gave year-round focus to collecting items for raffle baskets, prizes and giveaways. Spring Cabaret concerts were held at the St. William parish center where entertainment was provided by Mr. Allen’s Seton/Elder choral groups as the annual major fundraiser. “People were so generous with their time and services,” S. Mary Jo shared, “with such a friendly spirit for the mission.”

Programs offered at The Women’s Connection included sewing, quilting and scrapbooking (pictured).

S. Mary Jo was spurred on in founding TWC by the buy-in of many Sisters and lay persons, family and friends and all the willing volunteers who came forth. “I was overwhelmed with the generosity and desire to support this ministry. This endeavor has been a ‘connection’ in many ways,” she said. Throughout, TWC remained in touch with persons served; one example is Debra Pilot, a fifth generation quilter, who sought the services provided, but also shared her own gifts as a quilter with others who wished to learn. The staff learned early on that listening to those who came was key. Many among those served would say, “You gave us our start in life.” Sisters Mary Jo, Ann and Kathleen keep in touch with one another and share a lasting friendship resulting from their TWC experiences.

The center redesigned some programs in 2011, adding opportunities for emotional support for women and girls on a journey to improve their lives with a social worker and employment/education coordinator; they were serving the ‘new poor,’ persons coming with resumes that didn’t know how to do a job search or navigate an online job application. Staff members wore many hats. They continued to connect women and families to community resources and offered educational and personal growth programs for alcoholism and domestic abuse, job training and placement, support groups and referral services. A focus group of civic and community leaders in Price Hill gathered to determine where there were gaps in services among agencies in the neighborhood. After leading TWC programs for 15 years, S. Mary Jo chose to retire as executive director on June 1, 2012. The Board chose Amy Shinkle, who had served as marketing and development coordinator within TWC, as her successor; she served for two years before taking a positon with another agency. In the years following, the needs of the neighborhood continued to be met by a variety of not-for-profit groups beyond the immediate neighborhood, each with their particular focus to improve the lives of those they serve. Santa Maria Services, Price Hill Will and the YWCA are close in proximity.

When reflecting on how this ministry experience has changed her, S. Mary Jo offered, “I learned at a deeper level that we can’t live our lives alone; we need persons around us to see needs, especially those of the poor. In 2004 when I was named one of The Enquirer’s Women of the Year, I willingly accepted the honor on behalf of all the women who believed in TWC. I felt such strong support for the mission and the desire to make a difference; it was indeed humbling. The generous spirit among the volunteers remains with me as does the enhanced self-esteem we observed in many of the persons we were able to serve. Our Congregation has been wonderful! Our Sisters and Associates have served as volunteers, took part in fundraising and donated materials and supplies. Each person’s gifts benefit so many. Those who have gone before us have paved the way! It has been a blessed and growth-filled time for many.”

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