When Iris Ivarra was a minor, she got married and had the first of her four children. “Practically, I played with real babies,” she says. For Ivarra and other young girls in the colonia (neighborhood) of Panfilo Natera in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, having children at an early age was common. “My husband accompanied me everywhere and I was not able to go out by myself, not even to pay the bills,” Ivarra says. “I was afraid.”
As her children grew, her family’s financial needs grew. Anxious to improve her life, Ivarra sought help at the Santa Catalina center, a non-profit organization that offers a sewing cooperative to women and tutoring and other services to children.
The center is supported by donations. Founded in 1996 by Adrian Dominican Sisters Donna Kustusch and Eleanor Stech, it has a board of directors, but four religious sisters still serve there, including Maryknoll Sister Margaret Sierra. “Our mission is not to give away food, clothes or medicines, because people don’t only need material things; they need happiness, art and to feel useful,” says the missioner from Albuquerque, N.M.
Ivarra, now 34, is one of the 16 women who belong to the cooperative. She works in the packing and quality control area to make sure the products made are perfect for selling.
In the co-op the women sew—by hand or machine—shawls, scarves, table centers, napkins, Christmas ornaments and much more. Profits from the sales are shared equally among the participants. Each earns about $160 a month, which provides a basic income for their families.
The center, built on a former garbage dump, started as a prayer group for immigrant women from rural areas. Soon the founders realized that besides prayer, they needed to empower and bring work opportunities to women struggling to survive in a city with a high rate of poverty, violence and pervasive machismo. The women started selling tamales and piñatas, but those didn’t generate profit.
When two religious sisters came—from the Dominican Republic and the United States—to teach the women to sew, the Co-op Women of Hope and Faith was born.
“The center has been helping me spiritually, morally and financially. It has been a blessing,” says Ivarra. “They taught me to value myself, to become independent, to believe in me and to love me. I used to disagree with my husband, but at the center I learned how to talk to him instead of fight. Now he understands that I have needs and rights.”
Adrian Dominican Sister Maureen Gallagher, director of marketing, helps at the center and sells the products, with Franciscan Sister Fran Hicks, Holy Spirit Sister Rita Nealon and Sister Sierra.
“Sister Maggie does an extraordinary job,” says Sister Gallagher. “She can talk to the women, understand their culture and empower them. Apart from selling the products, she does translations, secretarial work, drives, offers spiritual retreats and entertains the children.”
The women work four days a week and on Fridays they gather to nurture their spirit. They pray, have retreats, take a course called Values, Faith and Life, and attend workshops on leadership. Rosa Villela, the director of Santa Catalina, says Friday is sacred. “The workers value the time for prayer and spirituality. It is very important for them,” she says. “It is a kind of nourishment to sustain their spirituality and give them strength for the daily work.”
Recently Sister Sierra offered a retreat to women at the center. They reflected, expressed their feelings, and learned to forgive and be humble.
“In Bolivia, where I served, the indigenous people have a unique custom to forgive. I used that example at the retreat,” she says. “I separated the women into groups of four. They made a circle and each one asked another for forgiveness.”
The center also offers the Homework Help program. The idea was to provide a place for the women’s children and other children from the nearby colonias. Now more than 140 children from 5 to 14 years old attend the program four days a week. For the children, this program is an additional learning opportunity since classes in public schools in Mexico are only half a day.
The classes at Santa Catalina are available in the morning or afternoon, three hours daily. The children start each day with a Bible quote and reflections, where they can express their concerns and joys. Besides helping with homework, tutors teach values, offer computer classes and show children how to take care of the environment through recycling and growing vegetables. School supplies, snacks and fruit are provided.
“Working with children is a rewarding experience, because the students are getting closer to us and consider us like their mothers,” says tutor Julia Gutierrez, 34. “The majority come from dysfunctional families, with financial, emotional and nutritional problems. Sometimes they come in without breakfast or lunch.”
Gutierrez has been tutoring for the past 11 years and is one of the six certified teacher assistants. Her own life was not easy. She married at 14 and had three children. She dropped out of high school in the third year. “I thought that the role of women was to get married and have children. I didn’t know what life was,” she says. “I never thought education would provide better opportunities.”
At 19 years old, Gutierrez arrived at the center to enroll her children in the Homework Help program. She was invited to join the prayer group. She has taken the Values, Faith and Life course, leadership classes, completed her General Education Diploma and attended classes paid by the center to become a tutor. Currently two of her children are in college and the youngest is starting high school. “To have the opportunity to teach at Santa Catalina is a gift from God and a way to pay back what I received,” she says.
Gutierrez also appreciates the help and presence of Sister Sierra. “When she visits, the children are very happy. She teaches them how to make origami. She goes from one classroom to another and the kids stand around her in a circle and ask her for a frog or other figures,” says Gutierrez. “She is charismatic, creative and always ready to serve.”
Sister Sierra, a nurse and chaplain who joined the Maryknoll Sisters in 1977, has ministered in Bolivia, Nicaragua and New Mexico. Describing her mission at Santa Catalina, she says, “My ministry is presence, because sometimes there are no words to comfort the women. I only touch their hands and sit next to them in silence, listening to what they want to say. I care for them and offer my love.
Featured Image: Yessenia Hernandez Franco embraces her mother Lolice, who serves as the president of the sewing co-op Women of Hope and Faith, during a prayer day at Santa Catalina center (M. Sierra/Mexico)