October 11, 2018, Adrian, Michigan – In her 35 years of ministry with the people of Forsyth County, Georgia, Sister Kathryn Cliatt, OP, was involved in helping to build resilient communities long before the term became popular – and before it was a focus one of the Adrian Dominican Sisters’ 2016 General Chapter Enactments.
Sister Kathryn and her work in Forsyth County were recounted in a recent issue of Parish Neighbors of Cumming Catholic Magazine.
“I’ve always been called to serve the poor,” Sister Kathryn said in a recent interview at the Motherhouse in Adrian. “My mother did. She took care of everybody in the neighborhood. If they were sick, she sent me over to their house with a meal and a note saying to call her if they needed a ride to the doctor.”
After entering the Adrian Dominican Congregation and teaching in elementary schools in Chicago and Florida, Sister Kathryn felt a conformation of her call to serve the poor while ministering as a guidance counselor at Tampa Catholic High School. “We were a Catholic public school,” she explained. “We took anybody regardless of ability to pay.” Because the students wore uniforms, the students from poor families could not be distinguished from classmates from other families.
Sister Kathryn was assigned to minister at Tampa Catholic, but after the 1968 Chapter of Renewal, when the Congregation changed to an open placement system, Sister Kathryn felt the call to serve the poor, she said.
Sister Kathryn – with Sisters Joanne Peters, OP, June Racicot, OP, and Jean Cassidy, OP – did research and discernment during the summer of 1974. In that research they found that the Southeast was the “poorest and least served by the Church” in the United States, they began their ministry in North Georgia with the Appalachian people who were poor. Sister Kathryn served in Forsyth County, Georgia – in northern Georgia, the southern-most county of Appalachia – from 1975 to 2010, when she felt the call to minister at an orphanage in Kenya with three other Adrian Dominican Sisters.
The Sisters’ ministries in Forsyth County grew from the ground up, and were based on the needs that they heard from the people. Originally at a center called The Place, on the bottom floor of a church, they received money, clothing, and food from the people in the area and distributed them to the people in need.
“We started out with the four of us and then engaged volunteer lay people,” Sister Kathryn explained. “We were soon able to pay them salaries.” Staff members on duty at the time of a request for assistance had discretion to give the person who came for help what they needed. “We expected everybody who ministered there to be guided by the Spirit,” she said. “Everyone on duty could make the decision if this person should get what they were asking for or if there was a better way to assist them.”
From the very beginning, staff members were also expected to be in tune with the people who came to them, to be able to read their needs beneath their requests. “If they asked for food, what’s the story behind that? Was her husband out of work? We saw patterns. From that, we developed the nine non-profits.”
She gave the example of Good Shepherd Place, an apartment building for low-income seniors and people with disabilities. “Elders were being given eviction notices after living in a little shack for years and years,” Sister Kathryn said. When the property values rose, the owners wanted to evict them so they could sell the property. “So we formed a non-profit corporation and built a senior apartment complex,” she said.
But the Sisters did not give the people material help for free. “They had to pay for what they got through service,” Sister Kathryn explained. “We paid people minimum wage credit for their work – sweeping the floor, mowing the lawn, raking leaves. With that credit, they could buy food or get a bill paid. They would take pride in how good the lawn looked or how shiny the windows were. Our desire was to give them self-esteem along with other necessities.”
In helping to meet the needs of the people, Sister Kathryn also realized the existence of poverty laws. She began to consult Georgia Legal Services about specific family situations and was invited to meet with the legal services staff members to discuss the laws. Through Georgia Legal Services, “I took paralegal training so I could prepare the cases,” she said. The office “could take many more cases than before because I did the footwork.”
As a paralegal, she advocated for the county residents who applied for food stamps, social security benefits, and other benefits. Ultimately, she turned the hearts of government employees who worked in social service agencies. Often, the government employees were overworked, but some had also carried the attitude that some poor people were “deserving” of benefits and others were “undeserving.” The government employees began working with Sister Kathryn on individual cases, granting the families food stamps and sending them in Sister Kathryn’s direction to receive clothes or other necessities.
“You have to have an open heart,” Sister Kathryn said. “What helped me was I really believed then and do now that people are doing the best they can. Sometimes we can help them to see that there’s a better way.” She added that her experience in Forsyth County “has taught me to stand in another’s shoes – to really feel their experience.”
She has also learned from the people of Forsyth County. “Many, many people who are economically poor have a deep faith in God,” Sister Kathryn said. “This faith is sometimes very differently expressed than my Catholic faith, but it is deep and non-shaking. I learned a lot from their manifestation of faith.”
Sister Kathryn has also learned to have faith in the people she served. “We were building resilient communities before we knew what they were,” she said. “Every community has problems. The solutions lie within the community. Our gift to them was to gather people together and facilitate community efforts.”
Sister Kathryn noted the importance of nonprofits as “one of the poverty worker’s greatest tools, for they cause the community to take ownership of the project from the beginning and for the long haul.”
Sister Kathryn said the people of Forsyth County took on the responsibilities of staffing the nonprofit organizations and serving on their boards. “The community more than lived up to its obligations,” she said.
She gave the example of a clinic that the Sisters helped to start. “Every time I’d visit the clinic, it was filled with people,” Sister Kathryn said. What began simply “now has a pharmacy, a lab, obstetrics, pediatrics, as well as general medicine, and at least 10 doctors and nurse practitioners. We had nothing to do with that. The people who sat on the board did. We were there simply to bring people together.”
Through their work in Forsyth, Georgia, “we gained trust that the Spirit would guide us and that we would be safe, that whatever needed to be done, we could figure out how to do it,” Sister Kathryn said.