Category Archives: Learning Together

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,


P.S. You can learn more about Maher at or

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.

Hungry for a Healthy, Peaceful Planet

The pomegranate tree our daughter and I ate lunch beneath on a journey celebrating completion of her Ph.D.

Mary Beard’s book Women & Power:  A Manifesto skillfully traces women’s lack of voice and power in society from ancient Greece to today.  She makes the case powerfully enough that her unsettling questions began rattling around in my sleep — stoking my deep longing to live in a verdant, nurturing world that honors and affirms women, the earth, and dare I say it? Peace.

So, I shouldn’t have been surprised a few days later when my hair was metaphorically “set on fire” by an innocent-enough looking plaque at the Chicago Botanic Garden Orchid Show.  The culprit.  None other than the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius.  The offense.  Comparing “Ian, the Chinese word for orchid to the ideal man, ‘chun-tzu'” and claiming orchids the “king of fragrant plants.”  Of course, I thought, orchids would give him cause to celebrate the ideal man.

The information plaque that raised my ire.

Mary’s 104-page volume is comprised of two lectures and supporting photographs.  While her examples are compelling, I doubt the book would have kept me awake at night had it focused solely on documenting the ways women’s power has been subverted and thwarted.  Wisely, she pushes the conversation forward; posing hard and uncommonly asked questions about women and power.  Like a compass, her questions all led me at 2 a.m. to a single true north question.  “What kind of world do I wish to live in?”

A butterfly our youngest daughter and I marveled at during an afternoon break from her med school studies.

This is not the first time this discomforting question has stalked me.  In 2006, I embarked on The Berkana Institute’s first and only learning journey to India.  I was well aware then that, despite my privilege, the world I was living in wasn’t to my liking.  I had become disillusioned after years of watching an uncanny number of women, including myself, overextend and overcompensate to fit into structures and systems we were having little, if any, influence in shaping, leading or changing.  I believed that as a highly educated society we could do better.  But how?

Living the question of “the world I wish to live in” took me to back to India in 2010, 2016, and 2017 and prompted a move to the Pacific Northwest from 2006 to 2014.  Happily, my quest took me places that didn’t require training to lower the timber of my voice or “to handbag” anyone, tactics Mary describes Margaret Thatcher employing in her rise and exercise of power.  Rather, it afforded me and others plenty of opportunities to redefine leadership, a process Mary sees as vital if women are to thrive.

A garden sculpture our daughter and I discovered while she was completing her internship in Memphis.

Today, two of my most frequent destinations remain movements constructed by women in the past 25 years – structures that “are not already coded as male” in Mary’s words and that don’t require male genitalia to be heard or to rise to the top.  These are not spaces where men appear at the center of every universe and they require neither monster budgets or posh headquarters to prove their worth.  In these revolutionary spaces, women are leading and all people — women, children, men, the poor, the most vulnerable — are respected, affirmed and encouraged to find and offer the gift of her or his leadership.

A 2016 Tacoma gathering to welcome Sr. Lucy Kurien, founder & director of Maher in India, back for her 4th visit.

I would believe such destinations Utopian in a “power over” world had I not spent a great deal of time observing, working and learning with their bold founders.  Creating frameworks outside of predominant structures is difficult, messy work.  Mistakes are made. However, these innovative organizations acknowledge and value the wisdom gleaned from missteps.  Freed from the astonishing weight and bondage of perfection and the eternal energy drain of having to fit in and constantly prove and re-prove their worth, women in these powerful organizations can fly like legendary Phoenixes to new heights — their own.

Reading Mary’s manifesto a second time cleared my head and my sleep.  In the Afterword, she finds hope in movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo.  Still, like many women, she knows that a 6,000+ year old imbalance of power is no easy tower to topple.  Certainly, it will take a critical mass.  Reading this small but mighty book felt an awful lot like pouring fuel on a fire.  Maybe for now we just need a whole lot more fire.