Sister Carol Weber, OP, left, participates in a round table discussion with President Barack Obama and other community leaders in Flint. Ryan Garza/Detroit Free Press
May 6, 2016, Flint, Michigan – After months of helping the people on the North Side of Flint to deal with the crisis of contaminated water, Sister Carol Weber, OP, came away from a May 4, 2016, round table meeting with President Barack Obama with renewed hope for the children she serves. She was one of a group of community members chosen to meet with the President during his visit to Flint.
Sister Carol and Sister Judy Blake, CSJ, co-founders and co-directors of St. Luke’s N.E.W. Life Center, have been working since 2000 with the people of Flint, serving the needs of the people through such programs as employment preparation, a sewing co-op that provides women with a livelihood, and a food pantry.
Since the water crisis has begun, the Center has also become a bottled water distribution center. The Center also now offers a support and nutrition program for pregnant women and the mothers of small children, helping them to prepare nutritious meals to offset the effects of the lead in their children’s systems.
During the meeting with President Obama, Sister Carol said, she shared the concerns of the parents and grandparents of Flint. “First of all, they feel guilty because they were using the contaminated water for two years – making formula with it, cooking with it,” she said. She noted President Obama’s empathy and his words of encouragement: “We can either choose to recognize [the crisis] for what it is or go into despair.”
“I found him extremely understanding, extremely intelligent, genuine, and very, very much in a listening mode,” Sister Carol recalled. He listened to the concerns of each of the community leaders represented at the table – from two college students and a pastor from a neighboring church to a leader from the Hispanic community; and a representative of the plumbers’ union who asked that local people be hired to fix the pipes.
Also attending the meeting was Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who had tested the children of Flint, discovered the high levels of lead in their systems, and made the water crisis known publicly. Dr. Hanna-Attisha had pointed out that the children’s nutrition was already compromised by poverty; the lead in their systems added yet another disadvantage.
Still, Sister Carol found hope in President Obama’s assurance that the children of Flint will be okay. He gave the message that the children “are not going to be totally disabled and they are going to be okay – but we have to intercede” by making sure that the children eat healthy food, according to the recommendations. “I felt that this was the hope that we needed, but somebody in leadership had to say this clearly. I felt really that this was the beginning of change.”
She also spoke of the sense of support that she received from the meeting. “He talked about being behind us, being with us, but he said, ‘I can’t do it. You’re the people in the field who are really working.’ He was offering us not so much financial support but backing us in what we’re trying to do with our clients.”
Sister Carol was also impressed and moved by the many ways that President Obama demonstrated his desire to meet with and support the leaders at the table. He met them in Flint’s poorest neighborhood, in the poorest high school, bypassing the area in the high school library roped off by the Secret Service to greet each community leader with a handshake or hug; sending away the representatives of the press so he could meet privately with the leaders; and staying 15 minutes past the allotted time to continue the discussion.
She was especially moved by his parting words. “When he hugged me and thanked me for what I did in Flint, he said, ‘I want to thank your Order for all they do.’”
April 29, 2016, Flint, Michigan – A Goodwill van that left Adrian, Michigan for Flint on April 22 carried with it much more than generous supplies of tuna, salmon, diapers, and baby wipes. The van carried with it the heart-felt desires of members of the Adrian community to make a difference in the lives of people who still hurting from the disastrous contamination of lead in their water.
The collection brought in 577 cans of tuna, 179 cans of salmon, 82 packages of diapers, 19 cases of diapers, and 217 packages of baby wipes.
Sister Carleen Maly, OP, Director of Adrian Rea Literacy Center on the Motherhouse Campus, spearheaded the collection among the Sisters and those involved in the literacy center. Also participating in the collection were members of St. John Lutheran Church in Adrian, whose pastor, Joel Sarrault, is a former board member of Adrian Rea; parishioners of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Adrian, at the request of Associate Katie Love, of the Congregation’s Spiritual Life Office; and Goodwill Industries in Adrian. Dan Buron, executive director of Goodwill, drove the van. Members of the Adrian Rea staff also traveled to Flint to make the donation.
“We have felt so helpless,” Sister Carleen explained. “We didn’t know what to do to help.”
But instructions on how to help came through a letter by Sister Carol Weber, OP, co-founder and co-director of St. Luke’s N.E.W. Life Center in Flint to Sister Carol Jean Kesterke, OP, her Chapter Prioress, and to members of the Chapter’s Mission Council.
N.E.W. (North End Women) Life was established in 2002 to “support at-risk families in the North End of Flint,” Sister Carol explained. Services have included nutrition education, life skills classes, employment skills training, a sewing co-op that has enabled the women of Flint to earn a decent living through their sewing skills, and, in 2008, a literacy center.
“In response to the water crisis in Flint, the center has become a distribution center for bottled water,” Sister Carol wrote. She has also requested donations of tuna, salmon, juice, milk, diapers, and baby wipes. N.E.W. Life has begun offering a nutrition and support group for pregnant women and the mothers of small children, teaching them how to serve nutritious meals to counteract the effects of the lead in their children.
“We are focused on being proactive in combatting the fallout from this human disaster,” Sister Carol wrote. And so many people, touched by the situation, are willing to stand with their sisters and brothers in Flint.
Adrian Rea and N.E.W. Life Literacy Center are two of seven literacy centers sponsored by the Adrian Dominican Sisters, under the umbrella of the Dominican Rea Literacy Corporation. Other sponsored literacy centers are Aquinas, Chicago; DePorres Place, West Palm Beach, Florida; and Dominican, Siena, and All Saints, all in Detroit.
Feature photo: Pictured in Adrian with the donations for N.E.W. Life Center are staff members of Adrian Rea Literacy Center, from left: Sister Joan Mary, Brenda Sparkman, Sister Sarah Cavanaugh, Sister Joanne McCauley, Sister Carleen Maly, and Sister Kathleen Clausen.