Special to the Philanthropy Journal
By Kristine Ashton Gunnell, Ph.D.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant women reached out to women and children in immigrant neighborhoods, offering opportunities to develop friendships, learn new skills, and ease their adjustment into American society. Settlement houses offered language classes, vocational training, recreation, and a sense of community for residents. Settlement workers saw the centers as concrete expressions of their faith: extending charity and empowering women to forge a path out of poverty for themselves and their children.
Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac founded the Daughters of Charity in 1633, and this community of consecrated Catholic sisters worked to improve healthcare, education, and social services for poor persons wherever they served. In the United States, the Daughters embraced the settlement movement, opening centers in Chicago, St. Louis, and Los Angeles in the early twentieth century. In Los Angeles, middle- and upper-class Mexican women worked with the sisters to help their struggling countrywomen who fled the violence of the Mexican Revolution. Las Señoritas de la Caridad, or Young Ladies of Charity, collected fabric and offered sewing classes for women who wished to learn to make clothing for their children. In the basement of the Los Angeles Orphanage, the young women also conducted catechism classes for children in English, ensuring the children would learn both the fundamentals of their faith and a language that would open doors for their families. Reaffirming the Daughters’ holistic approach to combatting poverty, the sisters and their associates not only provided material aid, but also extended growth opportunities by enhancing vocational skills and personal spirituality.
Daughters of Charity continue to offer services that recognize the linkages between mind, body, and spirit in promoting economic sustainability and human development. Understanding that sewing skills have consistently provided an entry point for low-income women to insert themselves into the U.S. economy, Sister Maria Nguyen, D.C., rented a one-hundred-year-old building in Odgen, Utah, and offered sewing classes in 2010. Students learn to construct garments, quilt, and do alterations, and a couple of the women have started their own businesses as a result of their training. The Daughters also opened De Marillac Formal Attire, a dress shop which offers low-cost prom, quinceañera, and wedding dresses while also providing opportunities for women to learn how to run a cash register and develop other customer service skills.
In 2013, the Daughters opened Give Me A Chance Learning Center, adding an after-school program, language classes, and computer training to the sewing skills classes. At the dedication, John C. Wester (Bishop of Salt Lake City, 2007-2017), commented, “It’s an environment in which women and children can learn and grow and increase in grace. And one of the main things they grow in here is a sense of self-worth and dignity. There are many people in our society today who would have those precious graces and gifts if only someone would give them a chance; if only they had that kind of a home where God’s grace can work.”
Empowering women by offering opportunities to develop marketable skills that will lead to greater self-sufficiency, Give Me A Chance also cultivates creative spaces where women can strengthen their relationships with each other and with God. Sewing student Mirna Cruz sells the things that she makes at the center, boosting her income. But just as important, she commented, “These are the only friends I have. I used to take a lot of medication for anxiety but sewing has really helped me. I haven’t taken anxiety medication for about six months now.” Music and painting classes in the Arts for Spirituality program also creates a sense of connectedness between the students. Sister Lucia Lam Nguyen, D.C., explains, “I invite people to deepen their relationship with God by discovering their gifts in music or in art, using it as a prayer or to express themselves.” Farzaneh Rayhani appreciates her relationships with the instructors and students as much as the information that she learns, saying, “It’s the best thing that ever happened to me.” The center’s arts programs reflect the Daughters’ commitment to educating the whole person, recognizing that social, emotional, and spiritual needs carry as much weight as economic ones.
The center’s director, Sister Arthur Gordon, D.C., notes, “I believe that women and children are the most vulnerable in our society today. We don’t give money, or food, or clothing, but what we do is give a chance to educate them, so they can better themselves and their children. The children are our future, so why wouldn’t we want to give them a chance?” Cultivating students’ curiosity, the center has a play space and garden, as well as art and music activities. Retired teachers, college students, and other volunteers tutor children in reading and math, and one student said that her D’s turned to A’s with the extra help. Together with the adult programs, the center seeks to serve the needs of the whole family. Like the settlement houses of a century ago, Give Me A Chance is a space where people from different backgrounds build community, learning and growing into whatever they desire to be.
Kristine Ashton Gunnell is a Research Affiliate for UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women. She is writing a history of the Daughters of Charity Foundation, one of the sponsors for Give Me A Chance, Inc.