by Jill Ragar Esfeld
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — One hundred and eighty. That’s the number of volunteers helping women learn, improve, engage and become empowered through the Keeler Women’s Center here.
A ministry of the Benedictine Sisters of Atchison, the center relies on volunteers to provide a wide array of classes, services and support.
“We have the best volunteers in Kansas City,” said director Sister Bridget Dickason. “They are the hands and feet of Christ to others.”
The center is considered a hidden jewel of Wyandotte County, but its services extend far beyond the neighborhood.
“Keeler Women’s Center is for all women in every walk of life,” said Sister Bridget. “We all need to be empowered or have the ability to empower.
“And it all gets done together here.”
The classes available at the center are as eclectic as the people you’ll find roaming its welcoming halls.
“The nice thing about Keeler is that there are so many partners we work with,” said Pat Callaghan, who joined the board 15 years ago when the center was first established.
A member of St. Patrick Parish in Kansas City, Kansas, and a Master Food Volunteer for Kansas State University, Callahan teaches a nutrition class at the center and facilitates the writer’s group.
“I just love being here,” she said. “It’s a haven – once you walk off that elevator, it’s like peace.”
She’s not alone.
“It’s a reflection of the Benedictines and their care for people,” said volunteer Alice Munninghoff, a member of St. Thomas More Parish in Kansas City, Missouri.
Munninghoff knows the Benedictine charism of hospitality well; her own sister is a member of the order.
“It’s the love, that comes from the mission that I think permeates the whole operation,” she said. “And this is a very mission-driven organization.”
In 2012, Munninghoff retired from 32 years in Catholic education at Notre Dame de Sion High School for Girls in Kansas City, Missouri — 22 of those years as its president.
Now she volunteers in the center’s office one afternoon each week.
Here she finds everything she loved about her former position, minus the stress.
“It’s a great change,” she said. “But it still involves the things I really liked about my job — seeing people grow and seeing people being served well.”
Fellow volunteer Debbie Carmody is a product of Benedictine education through high school.
A parishioner at St. Joseph, Shawnee, Carmody worked in religious education programming for Good Shepherd Parish, Shawnee, for 28 years.
Now she embraces the Benedictine way of hospitality by helping make the Keeler Women’s Center a friendly environment.
In addition to answering the phone, Carmody makes sure the hospitality table is well stocked and ready to welcome visitors.
“I enjoy seeing how people from so many different cultures navigate through all of the things offered here at Catholic Charities and Keeler,” she said. “I get to go on little vacations around the world just by visiting with people.”
Carmody knows the minute a visitor steps off the elevator that whether she’s a business executive, a Myanmar refugee or a young woman recently released from prison, she’s part of the community here.
Comfort and support
Counseling is one of the key components of support at the center.
This school year, Gabe Rickard is in the process of learning about the individual and group counseling available here. Keeler Center is her practicum placement as she works on her master’s in social work through the University of Kansas.
“The counseling they provide here is so needed,” she said. “And it seems like they do a good job of resourcing professionals from outside.
“I’m meeting a lot of people from different agencies that are coming here to teach classes.”
She is most impressed by the considerate treatment of clients.
“I was a case manager in Chicago and this is not how it was there,” she said. “No hospitality.
“To give dignity to people who are walking in here, it’s very respectful. It’s a wonderful asset to the community.”
That’s what drew Jackie Tiggs to volunteer her time at the center.
A member of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park, Tiggs is a retired professional counselor licensed in both Kansas and Missouri.
She has been offering her services free of charge at the center for four years now.
“It’s part of what I’m called to do,” she said. “It’s a skill I have, and I not only want to share it, I need to share it.
Tiggs sees anywhere from eight to twelve clients a week and runs a support group for caregivers.
“It is extremely important,” she said of the service she provides. “Sometimes, people are asked to get reports when working with the courts and those are very expensive — they can’t afford it.
“Many times, there are marital issues, there’s depression, there’s anxiety, there’s work stress, parenting issues.
“These people don’t know where to go.”
A safe place
One of the center’s greatest assets is being able to partner with outside agencies.
Sinead McDonough, an advocacy and outreach specialist with the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault (MOCSA), has a support group for Spanish-speaking survivors of sexual assault at the center.
A member of St. Thomas More Parish, McDonough appreciates the safe, calm environment that welcomes her group members each week.
“If they didn’t feel safe coming forward to a group and disclosing a sexual assault,” she said, “they wouldn’t come to my group.
“And I’ve found the women are just incredible. They’re very supportive of each other. And they feel very safe. I’m very thankful.”
Alondra Estrada, a student of Cristo Rey High School in Kansas City, Missouri, has felt that support as she has just begun a work study job one day a week at Keeler Women’s Center.
“I was assigned here,” she said. “They asked me what kind of job I am interested in, and I like to help people.”
A member of All Saints Parish in Kansas City, Kansas, Estrada sets out fresh flowers every morning — a hallmark of the Keeler center — and helps out during the day, setting up for classes and sometimes doing child care.
“I like what they’re doing here,” she said. “They have different kinds of classes throughout the day and it’s a safe place for everyone.
“I was raised Catholic and I’ve always gone to a Catholic school. These are the kinds of things we learned about doing.”
Variety and friendship
The classes offered through Keeler Women’s Center cover an array of topics — from technology and parenting, to nutrition and knitting.
The center is always eager to consider new topics of interest.
Peg Burns Kerbawy, a parishioner of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Kansas City, Missouri, came on board three years ago with a curriculum she had developed for teaching Gospel nonviolence.
“We introduced the topic,” she said. “People who attended were asked: Do you want to spend a little more time on this?”
The answer was “yes,”’ and the group expanded to four sessions and beyond. The topic eventually evolved into listening to the retreats of Father Emmanuel McCarthy, the foremost authority on Gospel nonviolence.
“We’ve listened to retreat after retreat, pausing, discussing, praying and transforming ourselves,” said Kerbawy. “We’re making a difference in our lives and the lives of the people around us.”
Linda Barker is involved in transforming lives also, by helping women improve their English.
She’s been involved in Keeler Women’s Center for five years.
“I spent 20 years teaching at Bethany Medical Center as the staff development person,” she said. “So, when I heard they had some teaching opportunities, I said, ‘This is right up my alley.’”
Barker is a fan of the whole Keeler Center approach, in fact.
“It’s a haven for women,” she said. “Whether they’re coming to perfect a skill like English, or working on counseling, or the social aspect of doing the knitting or the book club.
“It gives them a place where they feel welcomed and they can interact with other people.”
Lidia Gonzales, a parishioner of the Cathedral of St. Peter in Kansas City, Kansas, knows the value of that interaction.
When she came to the center five years ago, she was looking for support as she grieved for her father and brother who had recently died.
An immigrant from Mexico, Gonzales spoke no English. But the welcoming atmosphere of the center easily crossed that language barrier.
“They helped me a lot,” she said. “I came to get counseling. She told me life continues.
“I worked in the book with writing and reading [English]and practiced conversation.
“I took a sewing machine class and learned to make a pillow case. Every day, I tried to learn something; every day, I tried to learn a little more.”
Gonzales speaks almost perfect English now and has a good job as a result of the skills she acquired at the center.
Volunteers are important to the Keeler Women’s Center, but so are participants.
“We seem to be the best-kept secret in Wyandotte County,” said Sister Bridget. “We just wish we had more people to attend our programs — anyone can come.
“It doesn’t matter where they’re from. You walk into the room and everyone is on equal ground.”
“Come and visit,” added Munninghoff, “Look at the classes that are available, look at the services offered.
“It will draw you in.”