For the month of March (also known as Irish American Heritage Month) IrishCentral is tapping into the heartbeat of the Irish American community. The Unsung Heroes series features inspiring individuals from across the US who do extraordinary work in their communities and respective fields. From advocates to artists, from local legends to dedicated educators; from a high school baseball team to dynamo nuns in their 80s, these people are making a difference and to them we tip our hats in thanks.
It’s well known how many hoops have to be jumped through to find a decent apartment in New York City, but there are a number of additinal requirements for 36-11 12th St, Long Island City, that make this residence stand out.
For one, you have to have a job. You also have to prove that you’re drug-free. The third, and most important, requirement is that you have to have a criminal conviction and have spent time in jail.
Welcome to Hour Apartment House III, a building run by a group of nuns to help formerly incarcerated women to get their lives back together. This, the newest in a number of buildings around the city, opened last December.
Sister Tesa Fitzgerald is the executive director and has dedicated many years to building a better life for these women and their children. She’s first generation Irish. Her father emigrated from Co. Kerry in 1929; her mother came the same year, from Donegal.
The day I visited there were two women who had just arrived from prison. The first was in the office speaking to Sister Eileen, whom she had known from her time inside. The other was collected at the prison gates by Sister Barbara because there was nobody else to meet her.
The work with these women begins long before their release, within the walls of a medium and maximum security prison in New York. There the sisters provide social services and counseling, they advocate for the women and provide things like childcare and education.
Upon release some women come to live in their own apartment provided by Hour Children. It’s affordable housing so it never exceeds one third of their income. This gives the women a chance to care for their children, build their self-esteem and gain vital skills and friendships.
Sister Elaine Roulet, who taught English in women’s prisons, started the organization when she noticed the powerlessness of mothers in the system. Many had to give up their children and had no contact or information on where they were.
When the decision was made to start a home for these children, Sister Tesa and three other nuns became involved. They all became foster mothers and brought their first 15-month old baby home in 1986. Pictures of the countless children they fostered over the following years now hang proudly on the walls of Sister Tesa’s office.
As time went on the sisters adapted to the growing needs of these women by opening a home for mothers in 1995, which marked the start of Hour Children as a non-profit. What now exists is a whole community to support formerly incarcerated women – from daycare and after school classes to work-training programs. They even have 3 thrift stores to clothe the women and a food pantry to feed more than 2,500 families in the wider community.
“It’s all about what success means to the person,” says Sister Tesa. “For many of these women it’s coming out of prison, living in the city, taking care of their children and not relapsing on drugs. That’s success and we have hundreds of these stories.”
Their houses are now dotted all over the areas most in need.
The need for the services provided by the Sisters of St. Joseph is enduring, indeed increasing, and, yet, the number of sisters is dwindling. Despite this, Sister Tesa remains optimistic.
“It’s the ebb and flow of life,” she says. “You deal with where you are and what you can do. I’m blessed because I got to do this work and this is where I am. Nothing is better than that.”
To read about yesterday's Unsung Hero, the high school basketball coach who could have gone pro but stayed help his students reach a brighter future, click here.
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