by Jill Ragar Esfeld
LEAWOOD — Roxanne Price was going through a tough time.
Temporarily off work while she recovered from a hospital stay, medical bills were mounting, and she was feeling overwhelmed.
As Operation Breakthrough founder Sister Berta Sailer, BVM, would say, she was “swimming toward the boat.”
Like many disadvantaged women being helped by the Operation Breakthrough program, Price needed someone to help her as she continued to swim — not a professional counselor or social worker. Just a good friend she could call on for support.
Starfish Ministry, an outreach program based at Church of the Nativity in Leawood and St. Thomas More in Kansas City, Missouri, stepped in and gave her three such friends: Laurie Widrig, Jennifer Dorman and Nancy Rowley.
And life has never been the same.
For Price or her three mentors.
“Friendship!” said Price. “No doubt that’s what it is. Caring, loving ladies like these. That’s what I needed to keep going.
“They’re there for me physically, mentally and spiritually.
“They’re always texting me, ‘How you doing? Let’s meet.’”
Though Price has recovered and is back to work, her mentors continue to help her stay healthy and manage her life.
“I still struggle,” she said. “But I can call and see these ladies any time I want. Maybe not all of them at the same time, but at least one of them is there for me.”
When Widrig, who along with Dorman is a parishioner of Nativity, first learned about Starfish Ministry’s mission of providing mentors for disadvantaged moms, she didn’t delay.
“I sent an email out to a group of friends and said, ‘Does anybody want to do this with me?’” she recalled.
Dorman and Rowley replied and the three were matched with Price. What they do for her is simply provide a support system based in friendship.
“They take me out to lunch,” said Price. “They come on my job and sit with me before I clock in — that’s special and I love that.
“I’m very grateful and thankful to God for these ladies in my life. I love Starfish Ministry.”
But Price is not the only one benefiting from the ministry.
“Roxcee is very spiritual,” said Rowley, a member of Curé of Ars Parish in Leawood. “We’ve learned way more from her and her positive attitude than she’s learned from us.”
The idea for Starfish Ministry began just over six years ago when Nativity parishioners Leslie Chalmers and Susan Vogliardo were volunteering at Operation Breakthrough, an educational program for underprivileged children and their families in Kansas City, Missouri.
“We wanted to do more,” recalled Vogliardo. “So we met with Sister Berta, and the idea of mentorship came up.
“She told us there was another woman [volunteer] who was saying the same thing earlier that day.”
Grace Becker, a member of St. Thomas More, met with Chalmers and Vogliardo and the three became fast friends.
“We all had the same goal that was driven by the Holy Spirit and faith,” said Chalmers.
All three had raised families of their own and knew one of the most important elements in their success was having close friends they could turn to for support.
They didn’t see the same support system among the moms they encountered at Operation Breakthrough.
“These moms didn’t have friends like we experience friends because other people were their competition,” said Becker. “So if you find a good deal, you’re not going to tell anyone else because that may mean less for you.
“So there’s this competitive nature but never really the support.”
They realized that women born into generational poverty never learn basic skills that those with a more privileged upbringing take for granted, like time and money management.
“Literally, these moms are living day to day, hour to hour,” said Vogliardo. “A lot are in crisis mode.
“They’re not thinking way ahead — like we plan everything — because they are trying to figure out how they’re going to put food on the table today, not tomorrow.”
The three women met and laid out a plan for a ministry that would provide mentors for these struggling moms — giving them a network of support.
“We chose the name Starfish Ministry because we’re trying to make a difference one family at a time,” said Vogliardo.
Friends and mentors
The ministry has grown into a great success. Moms are recommended through programs like Operation Breakthrough.
“We’ll meet them first,” explained Chalmers. “We’ll find out about their children, their home life, what their job situation is.”
If it seems like a good fit, the moms are invited to participate in Starfish Ministry. If they agree, they’re matched with mentors.
Each mom is assigned three to five mentors.
The mentors may be individual volunteers put together by Starfish or friends who choose to mentor together.
It always seems to work out.
“This is no exaggeration,” said Becker. “Every time we get a mom, the mentors always show up and fall in place.
“The Holy Spirit is guiding these people.”
Katherine Kaster can attest to that.
“I was interested in the program,” she said. “So I pitched it to my friends and we decided to be a team.”
Kaster, along with Mary Hockstad, Andrea Kilkenny and Melissa Deufel, were teamed with Trewonna Beauboir, a single mother raising three girls.
“We told Trewonna when we first met her,” said Kaster, “[that] we all have three kids and we all raised them together, and we all relied on each other during that time.
“We realized the power of just having girlfriends.”
As their friendship with Beauboir has grown, so has their bond with one another.
“We have different strengths, different perspectives,” said Kaster. “We rally together.
“It’s been really good for our friendship.”
Starfish Ministry currently mentors nine mothers. And though each family’s needs are unique, support is always available to the mentors.
The ministry sets up meetings on a regular basis with moms and their mentors to set goals and facilitate good communication.
“This is one thing we make clear to the mentors,” said Vogliardo. “We are not abandoning them. We are here always to answer questions.”
The three co-founders have met with area organizations such as Catholic Charities, Community Link and Bishop Sullivan Center to educate themselves on resources so they can give direction to mentors.
They know that success often comes from knowing how to network.
“[For] example,” said Vogliardo, “one of our moms wanted to go back to school. Well, within a day we had talked to someone at Avila and someone at [the University of Central Missouri] to get things set up for her to talk to a counselor.
“The whole networking thing in our world is huge, and something they don’t have.”
Though mentors are never expected to financially support their moms beyond taking them to lunch or giving them a birthday gift, reality dictates that many of the Starfish families need financial help.
“We didn’t want our program to be financial,” said Chalmers. “But the reality is it is occasionally, because they need help with cars, help with utility and medical bills.”
The ministry is a 50l(c)(3) organization that takes donations so it can help families in crisis situations.
“If moms have a need,” said Vogliardo, “the mentors come and talk to us and get it approved.
“Nativity and St. Thomas More have been very behind us. They’ve been amazing.”
Moms and mentors also work together making and selling cinnamon rolls and lotion bars, called Starbars, to supplement funding.
Starfish Ministry would like to help more moms dealing with adversity. And it would like to give women who know the value of friendship and networking an opportunity to change a life.
The results so far have been remarkable — not just for the moms served by the ministry, but for their children, who are seeing a path out of poverty.
“The kids are where we feel like we can make a difference,” said Becker. “We have one young man who is a freshman in college now.
“His mom might have the least amount of education of any of our moms — that’s a really big deal.”
Another child is an honor roll student at Cristo Rey High School in Kansas City, Missouri.
“He realized that if he does this,” said Becker, “he can go to college and have a different kind of life.
“So I do feel like the kids notice something is different, and it opens their eyes.”
Like the girl in the legend of the starfish who makes a difference for each starfish she throws back in the sea, these women are changing lives one family at a time.
“I do think in our environment today,” said Chalmers, “we can bridge the gap between cultures if we can show kindness to just one person.”