Accidental support group nurtures Latino women
by Jill Ragar Esfeld
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Fresh flowers are a well-known staple at Keeler Women’s Center here.
Saint Michael the Archangel parishioners Ana Maria Sauer and Mary Ellen Rodriguez noticed this when they first approached director Sister Carol Ann Petersen, OSB, with the idea of starting a health education program for Latino women.
But after two years volunteering at the center, they realize the flowers are so much more than a nice touch: They’re a symbol for what happens to women who come here.
A seed is planted
Both Rodriguez and Sauer are registered nurses with years of experience, including time at the Birth Center in Wyandotte County, part of Mercy and Truth Medical Clinics, where Sauer still works.
“So we were familiar with some of the needs of the community here,” said Rodriguez.
The two met through their daughters and started a friendship that was nurtured by their similar backgrounds. Rodriguez is from Chile and Sauer is from Mexico. Both speak fluent Spanish.
“I stopped working and was home trying to figure out what I was going to do,” said Rodriguez. “My daughter worked for MOCSA (Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault) and she told me what a wonderful place Keeler is.
“I talked Ana Maria into coming here with me to see what we could do.”
The initial plan pitched to the Keeler Center was to start a program in Spanish sharing what they knew best — health information.
“But it has grown beyond that to encompass everything under the sun,” said Rodriguez. “The topics are so varied, I couldn’t list them.”
Though health topics were a great starting place, Rodriguez and Sauer soon found participants had a thirst for information on a wide range of topics — and an even greater desire to express themselves.
“We prepared extensively,” said Sauer, “but we soon found out they wanted to share more than we could teach them.
“So we shortened our talks and let them share. Some of them are very educated women — so they have knowledge.”
“So we call ourselves Grupo de Mujeres which [means simply] “Women’s Group,” said Rodriguez.
A support group is born
Because many of the women work evenings while their husbands work the day shift, the women’s group meets on Tuesday mornings.
Anywhere from 8 to 18 participants are welcomed each week. Most come from families struggling to make ends meet.
Rodriguez and Sauer were both surprised and delighted to find their group becoming a lifeline for Latino women.
“They needed to just share their experiences,” said Sauer.
“Many Latino women,” added Rodriguez, “especially who are undocumented, are very isolated.
“And so it’s difficult for them to find a place where they can feel comfortable and can share what women share, whether it is about their children or home.”
Sister Carol Ann agreed.
“Most of them come from around here,” she said. “And, frankly, the neighborhoods are not really safe to be out walking or to be sitting on the front porch.
“It’s hard for women to find a place where they belong.”
Though it was not their original intention, Rodriguez and Sauer have created the perfect environment to meet that need.
In fact, the group has become so essential and routine, participants are gravely disappointed when a meeting has to be canceled.
“Tuesdays, even if it is snowing and they have to walk four or five blocks,” said Rodriguez, “they’re here.”
“Yes,” added Sauer. “They look forward to it.
“One of the women works nights and comes after work, without sleeping. It’s amazing; she says it just makes her week.”
“So this has been a godsend I think for many of the women,” said Sister Carol Ann. “They have found a place here in the group.
“And they have also made friendships that have gone outside the group — that’s what I had hoped for.”
Every subject welcomed
As the group has grown, so has its subject matter — expanding from health to self-help.
“We discuss everything,” said Sauer. “We read the books and we make a summary and we share it with them.”
“We found that they really like self- help [materials],” added Rodriguez. “Currently, we have a woman from Arvest Bank who has offered to come and do basic understanding of finance.”
Sauer recently attended a seminar on teaching M.K. Mueller’s book “8 to Great: The Powerful Process for Positive Change.”
The book presents eight steps or “highways” that the happiest, most successful people have in common.
“It’s about positive change,” explained Sauer. “We read the book and had a summary for them.
“Each day, we shared one of the ‘highways,’ and they really liked it.”
Rodriguez and Sauer look for presenters who are bilingual and are interested in sharing their expertise with the group.
“Our goal this year was to incorporate a little more English,” said Rodriguez. “For instance, we did one meeting on understanding vocabulary when you go to the doctor or to the pharmacy.”
Growth in knowledge and understanding
As they’ve grown closer to the women in their group, Rodriguez and Sauer have seen their own interest in issues of immigration grow as well.
They see firsthand the struggles of hard-working immigrant families.
“It has been profound,” said Sauer. “To see other people who are struggling and making such an effort. It’s amazing.
“It puts into perspective our own lives. I really admire these women.”
Rodriguez also has been inspired by the women’s group.
“I think how much suffering you must go through every day,” she said, “that you would risk your life — the life of your family — to cross thousands of miles alone, not knowing where you’re going, not knowing the language.”
“They just want a better life,” added Sauer.
Now with Grupo de Mujeres, many immigrant women who once lived in isolation have a safe place to share, learn and make friends.
“Sister [Carol Ann] and her flowers,” said Rodriguez. “That’s just the perfect picture to think of.
“These women are frightened and alone, and we’ve seen them form bonds between themselves and us, with the community, with the center.
“That has been a wonderful gift.”
“The purpose of the Keeler Center is empowering women,” she said. “We’re helping empower women with knowledge.
“But it’s a learning experience for us, too. They give us so much.”
“I thank them every time I see them,” said Rodriguez. “It has been a bigger gift for me to see them bloom.”