The Telegraph’s 2013 Person of the Year, Sister Elizabeth Greim of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent DePaul, an order of nuns in the Catholic Church devoted to serving the homeless and poor, has touched many souls in Macon. Sister Elizabeth is now transitioning to a new position in Little Rock, Arkansas with Depaul USA, where she will direct a homeless day center transforming it into a center like the Daybreak center at 174 Walnut Street in Macon that Sister Elizabeth helped found in 2012, and has directed for the past three years. The Monitor caught up with Sister Elizabeth on April 24, 2015 to hear about what she’s learned and done in Macon, and what its people have meant for her.
There will be a mass and reception in Sister Elizabeth’s honor beginning at 6 p.m. on Thursday, June 4, 2015 at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, 830 Poplar Street in downtown Macon. The public is welcome.
Monitor: Before coming to Macon, where had you been, and what were you doing?
Sister Elizabeth: I’ve been a sister in the Daughters of Charity for almost 20 years now, the last ten in Macon. Before that, I served the homeless in Baltimore for six years, including work at My Brother’s Keeper, a small ministry for the homeless that focused on serving meals.
Monitor: You were in Macon for six years before founding Macon’s Daybreak center on Walnut Street. What were you doing for those years, and what did you learn from those experiences?
Sister Elizabeth: I started in Macon as a case manager in the Mother and Child program, which was associated with St. Joseph’s Church and the archdiocese of Savannah. I eventually came to direct that program in combination with another, the Nazareth Life Ministries program on Orange Street in Macon. The combined program works with women who have pre-school children and who are struggling to make a family work without school assistance. The program helps to fill the gaps for them.
For example, a young mother might find that she wouldn’t be released from the hospital with her newborn unless she has an infant car-seat. While we’d give the young mom the resources for the car seat, we’d also talk with her about why the car-seat is so important and what was going on in her life that she was unprepared for things like the need for a car-seat. That’s not to make judgments, but just to ask questions in moments of crisis and help avoid further crises.
Monitor: As a past director of that program, what is your sense of its future?
Sister Elizabeth: The ministry’s focus is pretty tight, and the need continues. There’s a large Hispanic program there. Many of them don’t have high school diplomas. Some of these young women are being helped to achieve a degree of academic success through a program sponsored by the Mexican government. By taking online courses, they can stay on track with courses leading to a high school diploma recognized here and in Mexico. That online program is called Plaza Comunitaria. There’s also a citizenship course at Family Advancement Ministries being offered to immigrants. Sister Roberta Treppa’s doing a great job in leading Family Advancement Ministries.
Monitor: You started seriously to explore the possibility of establishing Daybreak in 2011. Daybreak is a very different kind of operation, serving mostly men who are homeless, or nearly so. What’s distinctive about Daybreak, and how did your work with women and families lead to founding Daybreak?
Sister Elizabeth: There are many great programs in Macon serving the poor, the homeless, the addicted, the battered. There’s the Salvation Army, providing overnight emergency shelter to about one hundred or more many nights, and other great programs too. There’s the Rescue Mission, providing drug rehab services. Crisis Line and the Dove Center help battered women. Loaves and Fishes does a lot, including help with transitional housing. Mulberry Church’s Macon Outreach feeds many people through the week, and Christ Church with its partners feeds people on weekends. First Choice is helping homeless people and others with chronic medical problems, some on Medicaid.
What we were seeking to do with Daybreak was to fill any gap where the services being provided were not addressing the problems that the poor and homeless were having, or where the services being offered weren’t sufficient.
Monitor: What gaps did you see?
Sister Elizabeth: Denise Saturna at the time was running a program called Come to the Fountain, a meal program gathering the homeless for a meal on Sunday evenings first at the fountain near Cherry at Third Streets, then at Central City Park. We saw in that setting the problems that many homeless people in Macon were experiencing. She and I both had a vision of a center that was focused on relationships first and connecting people more effectively with current services.
The folks staying at the Salvation Army’s emergency shelter leave there at seven in the morning, and don’t go back until late in the afternoon. Mulberry has a limited window of time for people to eat at noon. That leaves people with many hours during the day when they aren’t occupied, but at the same time, can’t loiter, can’t panhandle, and don’t have a home place. It puts them at risk of getting into trouble with drugs or the police or something else. Even some people who aren’t homeless, but who have rooms and modest support, want to have the opportunity to socialize, or just be with others.
At the same time, you can see that people trying to revitalize downtown naturally aren’t crazy about having a bunch of homeless and poor people congregating outside places along Cherry, Second and Mulberry. We started looking for a building near downtown, but not too far from downtown. The old Macon Steel building on Walnut fit the bill.
Monitor: Who were your biggest allies in getting Daybreak off the ground?
Sister Elizabeth: Denise Saturna was critical, as I mentioned. But there were plenty of other people too who saw the need to fill gaps in helping the poorest. It was kind of like the perfect storm of factors coming together to help get Daybreak off the ground.
Of course there were people like Chuck Levesque at Depaul USA from Chicago who came down periodically during our start up. His support was invaluable. Daybreak, a project of Depaul USA, continues because of these partnerships and relationships.
There were also people like Ramona Masterangelo, June Bryant and Sharon Bailey, three women who were involved in the Bless These Hands Fair Trade Festival. It was interesting that they came from three very different churches, St. Joseph’s, First Baptist and High Street Unitarian – all pretty much on the same block, but different. They joined together in helping with founding Daybreak.
Lots of other people and their churches, their synagogue, their temple, all came together to help as well, and people without churches too. Many individuals made some huge personal contributions. I hesitate to list them all because you always leave someone out, but three examples are Gary Musolf and Kay Gerhardt, and Al Gerhardt who built the place. They were real enthusiasts and servants of this mission. Michele McKinley and Mike Ford worked very effectively to help with the siting of Daybreak and the downtown connections.
And we had the incredible support from local funders like Peyton Anderson and the Community Foundation of Central Georgia.
A personal support to me and Daybreak is Joan Godsey, who believed in this project from the beginning.
Monitor: We spoke with Sister Catherine Brown this week at Daybreak who explained that one important feature of Daybreak is to offer some help in the medical services area.
Sister Elizabeth: Yes, Daybreak is serving 16 people a week with clinical medical help because they can’t latch on to Medicaid, and because the emergency room isn’t the best alternative. Debbie Macmillan and Sheryl Winn from Georgia College have done a wonderful job of serving these people. The clinic at Daybreak exists because of their efforts, and that couldn’t have happened without Kendra Russell’s initial support as well in her role as director of nursing there.
I know that Sister Catherine is looking for someone else with medical privileges to volunteer at Daybreak by providing more clinical help, even a half-day per week. We’re really breaking through the ceiling in that category of service at Daybreak. If you could help recruit someone through the Monitor’s readership, that sort of service would be well appreciated.
Monitor: Who are you serving at Daybreak, and what difference is it making for them?
Sister Elizabeth: Most of the people using Daybreak are men, but there are women too. We aren’t serving children, which has been discussed, but we felt that we had to draw the line there. We have guys who are, like, 62, maybe recently out of prison, who aren’t disabled but have little work experience and can’t get Social Security. What are they to do? They want to work, and we can help support them in that transition. Learning computer skills, literacy, writing resumes, connecting with family, daily shower and laundry, the needs are many. We try to help them sort out their situations, prioritize and set goals.
Monitor: As you leave Macon, what do you see as Macon’s biggest problems in serving the poor and homeless?
Sister Elizabeth: Housing is one of the biggest issues. River’s Edge does a fabulous job, but they don’t have enough units. And if people don’t have the appropriate diagnosis, they can’t get in. Emergency shelters aren’t necessarily the best option. Section 8 vouchers are hard to get.
Monitor: Do you see any ironies in the demolition of blighted housing in Macon?
Sister Elizabeth: Some of those buildings aren’t fixable, but some are. We need another committee to address stuff like that. There is some interest in Tiny Houses, but they need to be inexpensive, because the guys at Daybreak don’t have access to sustainable adequate income to keep the lights on month after month. At least not yet, though maybe over time with work or Vet benefits, Social Security and the like.
Monitor: What do you see as Macon’s strengths in comparison with other communities you’re familiar with?
Macon is much smaller than either Baltimore or Little Rock. But it’s a very open community in comparison. A very open community. Daybreak was seen by many in Macon as a humane and reasonable solution, a way to help people who are really vulnerable. Macon’s people wanted to do that.
In Macon, there’s not as much of the NIMBY sensibility as in other places I’ve seen. That was surprising to me. We got a little resistance, but not a lot. Sure, downtown needs some relief from this if it is to revitalize itself, but that didn’t stop people from stepping up.
I feel like Macon has a real heart for trying to do the best it can for everyone. For instance, the churches downtown pulled together in an interfaith coalition. They’re concerned, and have a desire to help.
As I’ve being moving out of Macon, I said to someone the other day, Stacey Harwell, that there’s this whole group of younger entrepreneurs including the Leadership Macon groups who see themselves tied with the poor and the homeless as part of the whole continuum of the community. They’re open to anybody.
I think there’s a strong sense of community in Macon, and that’s why Daybreak works. It works in part because of the faith communities. Each one has its worship space, and each one has its fellowship space. Daybreak offers a third space, where members can join in with a much wider community and deal with the real problems that some are experiencing, and then find eclectic ways of engaging.
Everyone can feel like they can do something there. Youth groups can come down and be face to face with someone who is struggling.
Some communities say, let’s put them all on a bus. But not here. There have been some struggles, but not now.
Then we have some community leaders who come out and sleep with the homeless. People like Jeff Battcher, Ninfa Saunders, Chris Sheridan, church leaders, and more. And then to come back again a second time to sleep out. Somewhere along the way, your heart changes a little. Friendships form in the most incredible ways. I hope that continues.