News: Quilting a Community

Price Hill center helps women serve each other

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Matt Borgerding

Liz Bowater of The Imago Earth Center talks to members of the Girls Club at the Women's Connection about a summer day camp.

Women working together to make a quilt results in more than a beautiful textile creation. While they sew, women share stories, commiserate over hardships and discuss how to handle the troubles that arise when caring for a 2-year-old child, grandchild or great-grandchild.

Quilting fabric is the reason to come together; creating support, community and wisdom is the end result. This is the approach the Women's Connection takes to achieving its mission of empowering women to be healthy, happy people.

Piecemakers, a quilting group that meets every Friday, is just one of the many ways the Women's Connection, located in Price Hill, serves as a neighborhood center, according to Mary Jo Gasdorf, executive director.

"A fifth generation quilter and owner of a local quilting shop volunteered to teach women how to quilt," she says.

That's how Piecemakers began quilting at the Women's Connection on a regular basis. Eventually they began making items to sell at fundraiser events and a holiday store. Now they consider themselves program volunteers, not just participants.

'Open to anything'
Gasdorf, a nun in the Roman Catholic order the Sisters of Charity, says she didn't have a plan to establish a community center.

"I received a grant to do research on the needs of women and children in Cincinnati," she says.

What she learned made it clear that a different approach would be useful in connecting women with the services they desperately needed. They weren't getting what they needed despite the plethora of agencies ready to help. How to deliver services in a non-traditional yet effective way became the driving force behind the Women's Connection.

After gathering a task force of volunteers, the group looked at a host of storefront locations. Gasdorf says the "rapidly changing" neighborhood of Price Hill included her target population — single mothers raising children with high rates of unemployment, abuse and domestic violence.

Creating a different kind approach was the easy part.

"We were determined to listen to the women," she says. "We thought we knew what they needed but we really didn't want to impose that on them. We wanted to hear it from the women, so we sat here for the first few days, looking at one another; and then women started coming in."

The first of the varied requests was for a women-only, non-smoking Alcoholics Anonymous group. The Women's Connection added free childcare. The group is still the only one of its kind on the West side, according to Gasdorf.

"(We) also found that there are a lot of resources available, but women didn't know how to access them," says Jenny Brady, outreach coordinator. "Helping them to navigate that whole system and connect — "

" — that's the main point," Gasdorf finishes. "We said right away we weren't going to duplicate nor compete with any of them."

The two women laugh about their "dog and pony show," but their banter and ability to stitch together a complete view of the patchwork of services provided by the center doesn't have the feel of a scripted exchange.

As if on cue, Mary Roberto and Michelle stop to say hello. The women meet weekly at the center to tutor Michelle, who asked that her last name not be used, for the GED test she hopes to take in 2007. A married, African-American mother of three who works full-time and takes GED classes twice a week, Michelle's enthusiasm is still strong after studying for several years.

"I'm not going to quit until I'm done," she says.

"We're going to have her and her daughter in college together at the same time," Roberto adds.

These two are the last participants in the adult-literacy program the Women's Connection used to run. A proliferation of similar programs throughout the community prompted the center to send their participants to those classes and channel their efforts into another direction. That doesn't mean no tutoring is allowed.

"The Women's Connection is a welcoming place. We're open to anything here," Brady says. "They can come here and meet, whatever they want."

Non-traditional services
"Every now and then there's a brave man who walks through the door," Gasdorf says.

The women say the Women's Connection is willing to assist anyone in need and mention a recent call from a man in an abusive relationship searching for help.

Three full-time staffers who work with two part-time staff served approximately 2,800 women in 2005. In addition to 300 volunteers, the Women's Connection is looking to add their fourth full-timer, a bilingual social worker. This person will connect participants, including the growing Spanish-speaking population, with everything from rent assistance to diapers.

All services are available free of charge. Anyone can use the center's telephones, fax machine and computers during office hours. Occasionally a class might include a nominal fee "to serve as a commitment." Gasdorf says that's rare.

"The only things we give away are books to the children the first time that they come in," Gasdorf says. "They can choose a new book."

"Even when there's kids standing at the bus stop, we'll say, 'Hey, come on, grab a book,' to encourage reading and education," Brady says.

"That's another basic premise for programs: We're here to educate but in a non-traditional way, to be present," Gasdorf says.

That presence includes the kind of support girls and women used to find within the large extended families and communities rarely found today. Girl's Club (ages 8-11), Girl's Life (ages 12-15), Me Time (for adults) and hard-to-find programs such as ongoing mentoring, parenting classes, adult literacy testing and one-on-one job hunting assistance are just some of the pieces that make up the patchwork of the Women's Connection.

May 27 marks the ninth anniversary of the Women's Connection and its efforts to sew together a quilt of services and resources that reinforce essential life skills and needs for their community. Their hope is to continue adding any squares that are needed.

"Women feel comfortable here; it's a safe place," Brady says. "That's the greatest thing that we can be."

April 27 at the Women's Connection is "Girls Night In" for teens interested in learning about college life and their moms, who can access Fifth Third Bank's technology bus for free credit reports and financial advice. For reservations and more information, call 513-471-4673.

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