Category Archives: Wonder Women

Oh, What A Difference A Year Makes

Off to an auspicious start at the Brooklyn Museum . . .

In late March 2019, just a little over a year ago, two friends and I had the privilege of spending 48 hours in the Big Apple.  The original purpose of the trip was to see the Off-Broadway production of Gloria:  A Life*, a play focusing on Gloria Steinem’s life and path to activism. 

A PBS interview with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg tipped me off to her childhood visits to the Brooklyn Museum.  Curious to learn more, research revealed that Frida Kahlo:  Appearances Can Be Deceiving, the largest U.S. exhibition in ten years devoted to the Mexican artist, would be underway.

“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” Frida Kahlo

Our plane touched down at LaGuardia and we made a beeline for lunch in Brooklyn before spending an afternoon at the Frida exhibit, which was the first to include a collection of her clothing and personal possessions that had been locked away after her death in 1954.  From there we wandered through Washington Square before enjoying a glass of wine at the iconic Caffe Reggio.

The following morning was open.  It was decided that after a stop at Bluestone Lane, an Upper East Side café adjacent to the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest, we would make our way to the Guggenheim.  It was a delightful surprise to find 95% of the storied museum displaying the work of Swedish artist and mystic Hilma af Klint.  Winding our way up the museum’s spiral, I learned that her significant collection of abstract work predates what has long been to be presumed as the first purely abstract compositions by Kandinsky.  It was refreshing to find an entire museum filled with the work of a ground-breaking woman artist and teeming with women and men, many of whom were learning about Hilma af Klint for the first time.

Featuring her works between 1906-20, Hilma af Klint’s first major solo U.S. exhibit spiraled up the Guggenheim’s rotunda walls . . .

On our way to the play that had been the impetus for what had miraculously become a 48-hour organic Women’s Learning Journey in New York City, we happened upon a bronze statue of Gandhi in Union Square Park. 

Who could know then that migrant workers in India would be walking thousands of kilometers to return to their villages during a global pandemic just a year later?

Once inside the theater, we signed a poster board birthday card for Gloria Steinem before taking our seats in the circle theater to watch actresses explore and engage us in her life and legacy.

A heartening outpouring of birthday greetings for Gloria . . .

The next morning, our 48-hours of enrichment nearly up, we caught a car back to LaGuardia.  I headed home grateful and buoyed by women from three countries — Frida, Hilma and Gloria — and by my eager and willing companions without whom I knew I would not have made the journey.

Fast forward to the previously unimaginable March 28, 2020, a moment when New York was the U.S. epicenter of the coronavirus.  Museums and cafes in the city closed.  Broadway and Off-Broadway dark.  Iconic streets and famous squares empty. As of today, May 14, The New York Times reported that the city had experienced at least 192,314 coronavirus cases and at least 19,815 deaths.

Lighting the candles last year for women & girls everywhere, and this year for all whose lives have been upended by the virus . . .

I look back at our 48 hours with a mixture of awe, admiration, and sorrow.  The air travel, freedom of movement, museums and theaters, cafes, and sense of safety and security we experienced seem part of a distant past.  Especially in the wake of COVID-19’s ravages, it feels important to express my gratitude to New York City for its rich tapestry, the sweeping grandeur of its vision, and the moxie and resilience of its people.  Sending healing, strength and appreciation to our nation’s largest city and its more than 8 million residents.

With care and gratitude,

Sherry 

*Gloria: A Life will be featured on PBS this summer.

Why Feb. 2 is such a special day for me and for so many

Children come together often at Maher to celebrate and learn about Indian culture.

On this day, 23 years ago in a small Indian village, Maher – which means “Mother’s home” in the local dialect – opened its doors.  Founder and Director Sr. Lucy Kurien recalls that three women and their children sought shelter that night in the tiny home that would one day grow into Maher’s National Center.

At Maher, women are an integral part of building and sustaining community. Many eventually return to their villages with a greater appreciation for their strength, skills and talents.

Unwilling to Look Away

Raised Catholic in Kerala, Sr. Lucy was horrified by poverty and need she encountered in the slums of Mumbai. Mother Teresa’s work inspired her and she became a nun.  Moved by a need to improve lives outside the convent walls, she began working in a women’s empowerment center.  A woman approached her for help and they made plans for the woman to return the next day.  That night, the woman’s husband set her on fire.  Like others, Sr. Lucy heard the woman’s screams.  At the hospital with Sr. Lucy at her side, the woman perished as did the unborn child she was carrying.  Sr. Lucy was not able to save that woman, but in time she realized she could help other women in need and Maher was born. 

At Maher, all faith traditions are respected and celebrated. Celebration is an important part of healing at Maher.

A Story of Faith

Sr. Lucy was not a celebrity.  She was a nun with no money.  In the early days, Sr. Lucy and her colleagues walked to nearby villages to earn the trust of the people.  To feed the growing numbers of women and children arriving, she and other members of the Maher community visited nearby markets and pick up the rice and produce that had been left behind or discarded.  While her faith was strong before this time, she says it was these days of hardship and uncertainty that sealed her trust in the Divine. Welcoming, respecting and working with people from all India’s faith traditions created within Sr. Lucy an unshakable faith in the confluence of the world’s religions to attain human well-being. 

Over time and with prayer, faith, and hard work, Maher’s story spread and money and people came to help.  Our daughter and I arrived at Maher’s tiny office in Pune on a hot June day in 2010 largely unaware of what was in store for us.  We planned to spend a month at Maher before moving on to other non-governmental organizations in India.  As the time for us to leave neared, neither of us could imagine leaving.  Together that year, we would spend a total of seven months celebrating birthdays, marriages, accomplishments, mourning deaths and shortcomings, all while becoming acquainted with the rhythm of life in the safe space of the Maher community.

Maher social workers, housemothers, cooks and staff create loving homes for women, children and men in times of great need.

An Invitation to Love

Looking back, I am astonished at how unfamiliar all of this felt to us.  Nearly a decade after our arrival on that June day, I have come to believe it’s because we had never lived in a community centered on the concept that “life is love.”  Up until that visit, our lives in the U.S. had been lived in compartments – school, work, politics, religion, and so on – all of which seemed to me, too often, to prioritize growth, profits, results, outcomes over people’s well-being.

Uplifting Us All

Many Maher children are the first in their families to attend school.

I cannot imagine my life without Maher’s uplifting influence.  For me, Maher is proof not only that there is another way, but that this other way works.

It’s an important day for India because Maher has walked with so many as they rise to new life.  Maher has grown from a single home outside Pune to 44 homes in three Indian states.  On any given night, more than 900 children, 350 women and 85 men find care and shelter in Maher homes.  Nearly 10,000 Indians (mostly women and some men), participate in self-help groups sponsored by Maher. 

It is important for the world because it shows those of us in resource-rich nations the unstoppable power of faith, love and community.  Child laborers and individuals viewed as society’s untouchables have graduated from college, obtained master’s degrees and travel the world showing how very possible the impossible is.  Maher friends around the globe share Maher’s life-affirming story, host Sr. Lucy and Maher community members, and seed the idea of care and concern for all people in their communities and countries. 

Maher matters.  To the European social work students who study its ways.  To the Oman International School students who plan games and activities for the children and adults there.  To the children Maher social workers rescue from the train stations.   To all of us who dream of a more peaceful, loving world where all can thrive.

Ever grateful on this day to Sr. Lucy, Maher Board Chair Hira and all the joyful beacons of light at Maher,

Sherry  

P.S. You can learn more about Maher at www.maherashram.org or www.usmaherfriends.org.

International Women’s Day Appreciations

My favorite holiday — International Women’s Day — seems like the ideal time to uplift and celebrate women who have profoundly impacted my life.  While the full list of women I should celebrate would be much longer, the smart, talented, strong women below are the ones who came to mind this year.

I’ve been blessed to share experiences with Marta Nieves in Omaha, Chicago and India.

Marta Nieves, “my first mentor,”  whose ground-breaking work at UnitedHealthcare of the Midlands gave me a refreshing new view of organizational development and cultural competence.  Her uncomfortable observation that I had been raised to be a “really nice girl” gave me pause and set me on a firmer path toward self-actualization.  Thank you, Marta!

Rosie Tingpalpong worked with Marta and I at UnitedHealthcare of the Midlands.  We also worked side-by-side at the Institute for Career Advancement Needs (ICAN).  Smart, competent and trustworthy, Rosie called me on my tendency to micromanage and was a steadfast mirror as I worked to break this unhelpful habit.

Former Catherine Place directors Sr. Peg Murphy and Judy Mladineo join friends on Catherine’s Place’s front porch to bid farewell to visitors from Maher in India.

Judy Mladineo served as Associate Director and moved to Executive Director during my time at Catherine Place in Tacoma.  She displayed exceptional compassion at every turn and embodied and upheld feminist ideals in her life and in her work in a way I had never experienced.  Her wise, comfortable presence, and collaborative spirit allowed space in which the new — such as Juntas en Transicion and the We-Can & Si, Se Puede Circles — could be born.

Peg Murphy was director of Catherine Place when we began offering the We-Can & Si, Se Puede Circles.  Watching Peg in action is like watching a saintly, seasoned, social services Jedi.  She taught me the power of healthy collaboration, secure community, and faith in action.  In my mind, she’s a big reason why in her words, “Miracles happen every day at Catherine Place.”

Donna Lambdin, founder of Maha Methods, is both teacher and healer.  At her urging, I trained in both Usui and Karuna Reiki.   Time with Donna and members of the healing community she formed cemented my commitment to the health, healing and well-being of myself, others, and the earth.

The work of Maher Founder Sr. Lucy Kurien and Maher Board Chair Hirabegum Mulla brings hope, wisdom and joy to people in India and around the world.

Sr. Lucy Kurien had been leading Maher in India for 13 years when our daughter and I arrived at the organization’s unpretentious office in June 2010.  She has been a great teacher for me in overcoming loss, perseverance in extreme adversity and compassion.  I marvel at Sr. Lucy’s elegant ability to unwind complex human dramas in a way that preserves dignity.  Her creation of the Interfaith Association for Service to Humanity and Nature exactly 20 years after Maher’s  inspires me to “think big” and “hold fast to my vision.”

Hirabegum MullaMaher’s board chair, is my favorite person to ride through the teeming streets of Pune, India with at the end of a long day.  Her infectious laugh fills all around her with pure joy and she sees and holds life’s humor and sorrow with candor and grace.  Observing Hira taught me much about how to support and collaborate with visionaries committed to models and methods that produce life-affirming change.

Zumbir and I Celebrating Maher’s 20th Anniversary

Zumbir, an experienced Maher housemother,  effortlessly managed a home with 23 children and one U.S. visitor (me) during my three-month stay.  Capable, positive and strong, she dramatically increased my understanding of what it means to live in community.

Our daughters and my Mom when Lynne received her doctorate degree.

My mother, Pat Helmke, and our daughters, Lynne Clure and Cara Clure.  My mother gave her love, her feedback and devoted tens of thousands of hours to my success.  Our daughters remain the greatest gifts and most powerful teachers in my life.