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Slain Maryknoll nuns inspire women's center

Special Reports Writer
Brooklyn, N.Y.

The next five years will prove a critical time for America's poor. Welfare recipients have but two years to convert their dole checks to paychecks and only five years until a lifetime cap is put on their cash benefits.

Sister of Charity Mary Burns knows the situation all too well. She and Ursuline Sr. Mary Dowd co-direct the Maura Clarke-Ita Ford Center here, where some 100 women come four days a week to learn English, complete their high school equivalency degrees, prepare for citizenship, learn keyboarding, parenting and discussion skills as well as sewing and arts and crafts. A few hope to develop micro-enterprises that will provide future employment.

The center, founded by Burns in 1993, takes its name and inspiration from the two Maryknoll Sisters who were murdered in El Salvador 16 years ago. Srs. Ita and Maura lived in Queens, N.Y., and in Brooklyn before becoming missionaries.

The women who come to the center -- most from the Dominican Republic and now living in the Bushwick neighborhood that houses the center -- are also training to be community leaders. Some of them assist at the center's two Head Start programs, where 155 children are enrolled. Others are becoming savvy about welfare issues and helping to guide others through the hoops and tunnels of obtaining government assistance.

"Being poor is a crime now in the United States," Burns explained to 10 Irish community leaders who visited the center in mid-November. "Even legal immigrants who aren't yet citizens can be denied food stamps," she told the Irish women.

Burns was speaking of Maria E., a young Dominican who came to Bushwick eight years ago and suddenly found herself a single mother in 1995 when her husband abandoned her and their two young sons. His departure forced her to seek public assistance. But last month Maria discovered during her face-to-face, biannual interview -- the one required of all welfare recipients who reapply for aid and food stamps -- that her monthly benefits would be cut from $256 to $61. The decrease resulted from changes in the food stamp law that took effect Oct. 1.

Although she has always worked -- first in the garment industry, later as a cleaner in a government office building -- Maria's vouchers were cut by changes in the law that ended food stamps for legal immigrants like Maria and her 10-year-old son. Her 6-year-old was born in this country, and only he remains eligible for food stamps.

Maria is studying English at the Maura Clarke-Ita Ford Center and is engaged in job training that she hopes will improve her marketable skills.

The Irish women had come to Brooklyn from war-torn Belfast, the border areas of West Tyrone, the poor rural villages that dot the Mourne mountain range, and other needy areas of the Emerald Isle. Their visit was part of a two-week look at grassroots activism in Washington, D.C., Boston, Louisville, Cincinnati and New York.

Members of the International Fund for Ireland's Communities in Action program, the women hope to adapt U.S. models of community development to enhance education and training opportunities for families living in Ireland's poorest regions.

The Irish visitors remarked on the motivation shown by the neighborhood women, who sat at tables eagerly learning English, engaged in writing and discussion. Some people think the reason so many in Bushwick live below the poverty line and on public assistance is because they don't care or want to change, Burns said.

But "we have a different experience," she said. "The women we work with speak of the change they see in themselves as they gain confidence in speaking English and so find themselves more able to fight for a better life for themselves and their children."

Maria Perez arrived at the center shortly after it opened for classes in January 1994. Today she is a family worker in the Head Start program. Both programs are housed in the former St. Barbara school, which earlier this century held classes in German for recently arrived immigrants.

Perez, the mother of two teenagers, credits the center with "giving me the courage to stand up for what I believe. I find confidence in myself here. I find my teacher is my friend."

Although she had never heard of Maura and Ita before coming to the center, Perez said she would like to know more about them. "We need a little push," she said. "I think I have been in the same situation as these women."

Awilda Heredia arrived at the center two years ago and today assists other women there. She accompanies them to government offices and acts as interpreter and advocate for some. Many, she said, "get tricked" into signing forms they can't read. For Heredia the models of Maura and Ita "make us want to keep on fighting."

New York's Board of Education has recognized the work of the center and has provided a teacher to run Project Prepare. The project is readying 25 women for work.

Sr. Mary Dowd spends much of her time -- laptop on knees -- drafting grant proposals. Donations and grants constitute the center's $160,000 budget. Last year the center won one of four $10,000 grants awarded by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

But the center does not subsist on grants alone. Every day, the women share coffee, bread and a prayer together. On this day they sing in English and Spanish, "I say yes my Lord, in all the good times, through all the bad times."

One day when the center had little to work with except financial worries, seven loaves of bread materialized -- "no one knows from where," Burns said. Since then, she maintains "There is bread. There will always be bread at the Maura Clarke-Ita Ford Center."

National Catholic Reporter, December 13, 1996