Category Archives: Wonder Women

Maher Ashram India – Where Women Thrive

Women waiting for the arrival of Pratibha Patil, India’s first woman president, at Maher’s 20th Anniversary

In 2016, I celebrated International Women’s Day (IWD) at Maher.  When I made my plans, I had no idea Sr. Lucy Kurien, Maher’s founder and director, and Hirabegum Mulla, chair of the Maher Trust, would be in Delhi.  Sr. Lucy was to receive the prestigious Nari Shakti Puraskar for women’s empowerment from India’s President and to participate in discussions with the Prime Minister.

Sr. Lucy Kurien receiving the Nari Shakti Puraskar for women’s empowerment from President Pranab Mukherjee

Maher is known for its rousing IWD celebrations.  I remember one staff member wondering that morning if women would come since Sr. Lucy and Hira were away.  It wasn’t long before women wearing a rainbow of sari shades began arriving on foot, in bull carts, on the backs of motorbikes, in rickshaws.  The crowd swelled.  The staff member worried they would run out of food. 

Women preparing for a Maher program

Presenters took the stage.  The women clapped, cheered, and rose to their feet.  When the food ran out, we began to hand out bananas.  No one seemed to care.  They were happy to be together and that Sr. Lucy and Maher’s work was being recognized. One of the marks of a true leader is what happens when you are away.  The celebration was a glorious success. 

This jubilant event would be only the first of several such gatherings I would attend in the next few days.  All of them full of women who met a definition Meg Wheatley once shared, “a leader is anyone who is willing to help and ready to take action.”  Through self-help groups Maher and the villagers cultivated, these women were taking action to improve their lives, their families, and their communities while supporting one another.  It was a joy to behold.

Young women raising their voices at Maher’s 27th Anniversary Celebration

Yet, IWD is just one day.  Maher’s model works because the organization weaves women’s well-being and development into its work 365 days a year.  Girls attend school and are educated to their potential just like boys.  Rallies and street plays emphasize the value of the “girl child.”  Girls compete with the boys in the annual sports day, cheered on by Sr. Lucy with as much verve as she encourages the boys.  Young women take the mic at Maher programs, perform street plays and dances, learn and demonstrate Taekwondo with their male counterparts at celebrations, read interfaith scripture passages at ground-breakings and inaugurations, and the list goes on.  Girls and boys are expected to complete household chores. 

After they are settled and have regained their strength, women seeking shelter at Maher are encouraged to build self-sufficiency through career development, education, micro-lending, and employment opportunities. Many eventually return to life outside of Maher.     

Women of all ages performing the Durga Dance at Maher

There are many women role models to look up to at Maher in addition to Sr. Lucy and Hira.  Women play an integral role in managing Maher’s day-to-day operations, often serving as center managers, social workers, teachers, and housemothers. 

Maher celebrates the opening of another new kindergarten

Maher addresses barriers for women through example.  At a recent anniversary celebration, for example, a woman priest appeared on stage with Sr. Lucy and the male religious leaders for the first time.  The honor and dignity of women of all ages is uplifted, as evidenced by the fact that a highlight of the 27th anniversary program was a dance performed by the “Maher grannies,” women residents age 65 and above.

Women religious leaders on the stage with Sr. Lucy and male religious leaders at a recent celebration

Men serve on the Maher Trust Board and on the staff as social workers, program managers, and in other important roles.  As an organization founded to shelter battered and destitute women and children, Maher knows how important it is to have healthy, supportive male role models working to advance the organization’s mission.  When Maher social workers began encountering a growing number of homeless men on the streets, the organization opened homes for men. 

Sr. Lucy Kurien greeting Former Indian President Pratibha Patel on Maher’s 20th Anniversary

What started as a single shelter home for women and children has become a movement of love and smiles with 68 homes in seven Indian states and 25 outreach projects in more than 90 villages.  Maher was a fledgling organization when Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan declared, “the future of this planet depends on women.”  Today, Maher, which means “Mother’s Home,” is a beacon of hope for all who believe women are key to a building a better, brighter future for all. 

Sr. Lucy will be in the states this IWD. She will be featured in the next few weeks at events in Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Washington, D.C., and Vermont. For details, contact USGIVINGTOMAHER.ORG.             

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.