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Dominican sisters build peace by being neighborly in New Orleans

April 1, 2017

By BETSY TAYLOR

A former grocery store in New Orleans now serves a more spiritual function: providing a renovated site for those working "to build peace, to preach peace and to be peace."

The Dominican Sisters of Peace, an order of women religious with about 500 members worldwide, opened its Peace Center on the border between the Marlyville-Fontainebleau and Gert Town neighborhoods about two and a half years ago. It is staffed by three of the sisters who live above the center, and receives financial support from their order and from Englewood, Colo.-based Catholic Health Initiatives. The Dominican Sisters of Peace are one of the participating congregations of that Catholic health care system.

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Children enjoy computer games with Sr. Suzanne Brauer, OP, at the Peace Center in New Orleans.

The sisters say this area never fully recovered from the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina and widespread flooding 12 years ago. Some empty lots dot the landscape where homes and buildings once stood. Amidst pockets of gentrification, families who used to have their own homes, but were economically devastated by the natural disaster, are living doubled or tripled up in apartments and houses.

Knock, knock
About three years ago in preparation to open the center, a team of women religious went door-to-door to ask area residents what they could offer in the community that would be a help. The Dominican Sisters of Peace planned programming based on what they heard and enlisted volunteers. Three sisters, Sr. Suzanne Brauer, Sr. Pat Thomas, and Sr. Ceal Warner, opened the center in September of 2014, providing after-school homework help and recreation on school days, two weeks of summer camp, and meals and socialization for seniors. They run a job readiness program twice a year for adults.

They set out to create a gathering place, a sanctuary where people can build relationships with their neighbors, get needed services and recharge physically, mentally and spiritually.

Diane Jones, CHI vice president of healthy communities, says the sisters' efforts build community by supporting and strengthening families through youth and family programs. The Peace Center addresses food insecurity among elders by serving hot meals and frozen takeaway dinners. CHI's Mission and Ministry Fund has given $131,500 to the center, from 2014 through 2017.

The Peace Center programs have a positive impact on social determinants of health, the societal and structural factors that affect people's health, Jones explains. As an example, homework tutors may keep children motivated to learn and eager to stay in school. College graduates have a life expectancy that is nine years longer on average than those who don't complete high school, Jones says, citing a 2012 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.

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Neighborhood women share a hot dinner and bingo game at the Peace Center.

Building community
About a dozen children walk to the Peace Center in the afternoons on school days. The center also welcomes kids on school holidays and some Saturdays. College students and retirees volunteer to assist the youngsters with schoolwork. Once the work is done, the students and volunteers may head outside for a game of touch football.

Kylar Wiltz, 20, a junior from Breaux Bridge in southern Louisiana, is among the Xavier University of Louisiana students who volunteer at the after-school program at the Peace Center. Wiltz co-coordinates a mentoring program called Men on the Move. Several of the university volunteers at the Peace Center are African-American or Hispanic men from that group, and other Xavier students volunteer at the Peace Center, as well. They help out at the center for an hour and a half to two hours one or more days a week.

Wiltz believes the university students make an impact by being consistent, positive and patient with the children. "It's the little things" that matter, he says. In addition to getting encouragement to do well in school, the kids learn to treat one another with respect. He says the sisters model this by how they treat everyone at the center. "The sisters have such a positive energy about them."

Brenda Dooley, a 63-year-old longtime resident of Gert Town, calls the center "a blessing," and says she feels an inner peace every time she comes through the doors.

Dooley says she didn't know the first thing about using a computer, not even how to turn it on, until she began taking classes at the center. Now, she can send emails and use word processing software. She's gotten to know some of her neighbors at the center, and enjoys socializing during bingo games. "I try not to miss one," she says.

 

Copyright © 2017 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
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