Wednesday, March 18, 1998
'What is this place?' A godsend

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Sister Mary Jo Gasdorf, front, is Women's Connection director. Also involved are, from left, Sister Ruth Hunt, Sister Mary Ellen Elder, Sister Kathleen Hebbeler, Jeanne Hasselbeck and Barbarajene Williams. The toys are for kids whose moms come for help.
(Yoni Pozner photo)
| ZOOM |
At noon, they pray. Six heads bow around a table in what was once a corner drugstore. One voice rises in song.

Barbarajene Williams, a Quaker from Philadelphia, sings in a calming, down comforter of a voice.

''For health and strength and daily bread we praise thy name, Oh God.''

Outside, the world around this busy corner in Price Hill falls quiet. If only for a moment, buses race by in silence. The sidewalks empty of foot traffic. No one pops open the storefront's door to ask: ''What is this place?''

Inside, phones stop ringing. The fax machine holds its breath. Finally, Sister Mary Jo Gasdorf whispers ''Amen.'' All heads rise.

On these quiet notes begin a ''Lunch with Cliff'' visit with the staff of the Women's Connection.

This is a weekly lunch gathering for these six women. Over carryout home cooking from the nearby Hilltop Restaurant, they exchange stories and try to find solutions to the problems neighborhood women bring to the center. Today, they go over the sharing and caring that went on during morning interviews at the non-denominational women's referral service.

They talked about a grandmother whose plans to go to college were put on hold after her daughter abandoned her four children. They gritted their teeth as they discussed the ills brought on by welfare ''reform.''

They spoke softly of the women they saw - some in pain, all in need. They talked about how they drew strength from these women, how they were inspired by the indefatigable desire to lead a better life. As they spoke, the stillness that had enveloped the room evaporated. The fax machine suddenly exhaled a slew of pages. The phones started ringing. Potential clients came and went. The six women around the table took turns answering every inquiry.

''At lunchtime, we're like six corks somebody's trying to hold under water,'' Barbarajene said. ''One's always bobbing up.''

Bundled for the late-winter cold, two women rounded the corner and peered into the window. They glanced at the self-help literature spread out where drugstore doodads used to be on display.

Sister Mary Ellen Elder tried to read their minds. They're wondering, she guessed, What is this place?

''We get that one a lot,'' she said.

When she hears the question, Sister Mary Ellen replies: ''We're not a dating service.''

As she says that, the room is bathed in laughter. Sister Mary Jo,the center's founder and director, laughs the loudest and the longest. The Sister of Charity pictures the reaction she would get if she told her superiors she's gone into the matchmaking business.

''It helps to have a sense of humor here,'' notes Sister Ruth Hunt, the center's secretary. ''While we're committed to what we're doing, we don't take ourselves too seriously.''

The work they do, however, is serious business. To Sister Mary Ellen, the Women's Connection is ''a place where you can talk about what's stressing you out, where you can have some woman-to-woman talk.''

Sister Mary Jo cautioned ''we are not counselors. We connect women in need, who have no idea where to go, with what's out there. If they need clothes for their children, quality and affordable child care, help in dealing with an abusive husband, we link them with agencies who can help. We're working with them. We're not doing it for them. We're helping to build self-esteem.''

The staff members also get something out of their time at the Women's Connection. It goes beyond knowing they're working out of an old drugstore that, in its new life, is still dispensing help to the neighborhood.

These pharmacists of the soul are heartened by what they hear. Sharing these stories, they find, is the best part of their weekly lunch.

''What we talk about at lunchtime,'' said Jeanne Hasselbeck, Sister Mary Jo's sibling and a volunteer at the center, ''recharges our batteries. It helps get us through the afternoon.''

Sister Kathleen Hebbeler, the center's associate director, mentioned the grandmother who wanted to go to college. Everyone at the table knew her story. She came to the center looking for help in furthering her education. The connections were made. She was on her way to school.

Then, cruel fate stepped in. The woman's daughter abandoned her four children. The grandmother had an instant family to raise. And no time for college.

She went back to the Women's Connection for help. But this time, it was for advice on child care and finding clothes for four little kids.

The grandmother didn't complain about her bad break. To her, it was just a slight change in plans.

''Every day,'' said Sister Kathleen, ''she takes care of these kids. And an invalid husband, too.

''And, she gets up every morning with a smile on her face.''

I can see why the six women share these stories at lunch. There is no better nourishment for the soul than to hear about individual acts of quiet courage and stories of the silent will to survive.

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.