Note: This story originally appeared on Flintside.com
On a snowy day in January of 2002, Sister Carol and Sister Judy stood on a corner along North Saginaw Street in Flint, positioned where they knew they would find the homeless and armed with clothing and food. On this day, a lady they didn’t know walked up and asked if they had clothing for a newborn baby, and told the story of a woman who had given birth alone in an abandoned house next door and wrapped the baby in her hoodie.
The caring neighbor took it upon herself to find what the new mother needed, and found the nuns waiting for whatever need came along.
Sister Carol and the neighbor knelt in a snowbank that day sorting through items until they found everything they needed: Clothes and supplies to give the new mother and baby – and a calling for Sister Carol Weber and Sister Judy Blake. The nuns left that chance encounter saying, almost simultaneously to each other: “We’ve got to do more for the women in Flint.”
It was for the two nuns, both former educators, the beginning of St. Luke’s N.E.W. (North End Women) Life Center—a place that has fed, educated, employed, and nurtured lives in the city for 15 years. They got help from 42 women, all associated with a food pantry, to develop the goals for and the concept for a new center that would serve the women of Flint. It would be a safe place. It would be a place where women grow their self-esteem. It would be a place that provides an education.
Shortly after the birth of the St. Luke NEW Life Center, a literacy program was opened and programs were created to assist at-risk families so they could become self-sustainable. But the center found they couldn’t train patrons for jobs that didn’t exist. “So we decided to start a business,” Sister Carol says.
They chose to develop a sewing business. Given the number of medical facilities in and around Flint, they decided they could produce scrubs—the two-piece uniform worn in the medical field. St. Luke’s hired five women and sold the scrubs locally. It grew from there. St. Luke’s made 1,500 teddy bears for first responders to give to children involved in traumatic incidents and were asked to produce another 500 bears.
Now, they produce vests and gloves for Stormy Kromer, the iconic national leader in outdoor wear based in Ironwood, Mich.
The vests are individually handcrafted on industrial sewing machines. Only a select few of the seamstresses at St. Luke’s perform the precision work. One of them is Nicole Zepp, a full-time employee, who says she has personally utilized almost every program offered at St. Luke’s including New Paths, food pantry, employment prep, and the literacy program. Another is Marty Calhoun of Flint Township, who also teaches sewing at St. Luke’s.
The sewing that happens here at St. Luke’s is not just a job, Calhoun says: “It’s a personal ministry. There’s a lot of hope in this place.”
“It’s pretty high-powered and intense work,” says Sister Carol of the company’s exacting standards. The Stormy Kromer contract with the national retailer was and is a major boost to the reputation and opportunity for St. Luke’s. It even helped them land a contract with General Motors to create 4,000 air filters—with more orders already on the way.
“It helps people know that we know what we are doing. Not everyone can sew for Stormy Kromer,” Sister Carol says.
Although NEW Life Center initially was created to help women, men in the neighborhood soon approached the sisters looking for work. Sister Judy’s response: “Alright, give me some ideas.” We can cut grass, the men said. And, so, St. Luke’s launched a lawn care business, which now holds a contract to cut grass at properties owned by the Genesee County Land Bank, and for the first time (barely) made a profit this year.
Men and women in St. Luke’s work programs complete 16 weeks of training—including computer training, working toward a GED, sewing, resume writing, problem solving, even exercise—as well as how to keep your job. Program participants then work for St. Luke’s for 90 days before the center starts trying to place them in a private sector job.
In 2016, St. Luke NEW Life Center received a $96,000 grant from the Ruth Mott Foundation to expand the sewing program. That year, St. Luke’s sewing and lawn care social enterprise job training programs produced 48 graduates. Of the 2016 graduates, 40 were placed in jobs (including 15 jobs at St. Luke’s).
The grant addressed the Foundation’s priority of economic opportunity through job training – a concern identified by north Flint residents during the Foundation’s strategic planning forums in 2015-16.
St. Luke NEW Life Center looks specifically to help the “structurally unemployable”—a state term that includes those who have committed felonies, those who haven’t worked in at least a year, those with disabilities and those young people who fall into high risk categories. More simply put: “those that have no other option but to steal what they want or need,” Sister Judy says. “We are trying to make the neighborhood strong with men and women who know what they want and are willing to work for it.”
Sister Carol says: “We want to give them a chance at life. … The first step is listening to them, to their hurts and stories, and asking them what they are willing to do to change their life.”
St. Luke’s has an 80 percent success rate for employment in the private sector for those that complete the 16-week training program and the 90-day employment experience at the center. “That’s high,” says Sister Judy. The employment experience focuses on exploring different work opportunities and getting experience.
“They go away from here with a lot better self-esteem than they came here with,” says Sister Carol. “They have some knowledge and some skills, but they also go away knowing that we are here for them.”
And, that is really what it is all about. It is about that one mother and her child. It is about a community of women and men, mothers and fathers. It is about the lives they build today and the futures they build for their families.
“We’re trying to break a cycle of poverty and that’s probably one of the hardest things to do,” Sister Carol says. “We have people who come to us that have never known anyone in their home to go out to work.” The two nuns tell the story of Napoleon, who received training from St. Luke’s and then a job. His 3-year-old son asked: “Daddy where do you go everyday?”
“I go to work,” says the father. His son asked him what that is. With that, the father sat down with the boy and defined work—an activity necessary to pay rent, keep the lights on, to buy food and clothes. His son replied that he, too, wants a job and wants to work.
“Now that is a game changer for that whole family,” says Sister Carol. “We’re trying to break the cycle. If we can help the present generation to say yes to breaking the cycle, it’s their kids that are actually going to change it.”