St. Joseph Workers make spirits bright while honing leadership skills

| Susan Klemond | December 13, 2016 | 0 Comments
St. Joseph Worker Program

From left, Kiki Sykes and Ellen Klahn-Grove wrap a Christmas gift at Jeremiah Program’s St. Paul campus. Klahn-Grove is the family services manager at Jeremiah Program, and Sykes volunteers there as a member of the St. Joseph Worker Program. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

St. Joseph Worker Program participant Kiki Sykes knows by name the children she serves at the nonprofit Jeremiah Program, and she also knows that the ones experiencing poverty might not receive what they’re wishing for this Christmas.

When Sykes and the eight other young women serving locally in the St. Joseph Worker Program distribute toys to the children later this month, Sykes said she’s looking forward to helping some of them feel “the joy of knowing they’re someone.”

“Around the holiday season, part of the culture is gift-giving, and not every family has the resources to participate in that,” said Sykes, 22, who since August has worked in pre-admissions at Jeremiah Program, which provides support for single mothers and their children. “I’m excited to contribute.”

The St. Joseph Workers participating in the 11-month immersive leadership program started in 2001 by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet will organize and distribute about 150 new toys for children and teens at the local nonprofits where they work. The toys are left over from another nonprofit, Sponsor A Family MN, which matches families in need with sponsors who anonymously buy them gifts for the holidays.

The St. Joseph Worker toy distribution, now in its fourth year, offers the women, ages 22-25, the chance to serve the community in a festive way. Usually, their full-time volunteering intensely focuses on health care, direct service, community outreach and advocacy organizations.

“They have a chance to do something outside the realm of their normal work, to just be joyful. Their regular work can be joyful, but to have a little extra joy,” said Andrea Pearson Tande, program coordinator.

Typically, the toys go to organizations including the Jeremiah Program, Project Pride for Living, Learning in Style, the Lift Garage, Catholic Charities New American Services for refugee resettlement and Washburn Center for Children.

Since the beginning of the St. Joseph Worker Program, up to 14 women ages 21 to 30 from across the United States learn each year from the sisters about spirituality, leadership, community and simplicity, and social justice. The program is Christian, though membership in a faith isn’t required.

The women gain career experience and direction to serve the broader community while forming their own living community, said Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet Suzanne Herder, who directs the program in St. Paul. St. Joseph Worker programs exist or are forming in several sites in California, Philadelphia and New York state. Some of the more than 150 St. Joseph Worker alumni continue to meet regularly.

The CSJs started the St. Joseph Worker Program after St. Catherine University students asked for more spirituality and connection with them, Sister Suzanne said. The program gives young women “an awareness of their own spirituality, their own leadership skills,” she said. “It gives them a compassionate heart for those in need and for themselves, and we teach them to have a compassionate heart for themselves, so they can do the work with those who are in need.”

Sykes chose the St. Joseph Worker Program after graduating from St. Olaf College in Northfield last spring because it blends social justice and community living.

“I was excited about living with women who are all going through this job experience rather than having it be different spheres of my life,” said the Kansas City, Kansas, native.

“The Jeremiah and St. Joseph Worker programs are hopefully going to provide a platform for [Sykes] to do important work in the future,” said Ellen Klahn-Grove, 27, Jeremiah Program family services manager, Sykes’ site supervisor and a St. Joseph Worker alumna.

Klahn-Grove served in the St. Joseph Worker Program from 2011 to 2012 and sees how it prepared her for her current position.

“It’s taken a few years out now to realize how important and powerful experiences were and how they’ve shaped the things I work and I’m passionate about today,” she said.

Both Klahn-Grove and another alumna, Alyssa Howells, have stayed involved in the program and meet monthly with other program graduates for spiritual sharing, support and socializing. St. Joseph Worker Program was an introduction to nonprofit work, said Howells, who also participated in 2011-2012 and plans to study to be a nurse/midwife.

Retreats, training and weekly spiritual meetings provide the women and sisters opportunities to bond, Sister Suzanne said, adding that the sisters have great hope for the women.

“We really would like to see them be leaders in their community for peace and justice, to be aware of their spirituality and be present to themselves and to others,” she said.

Whether it’s making a child smile with a holiday toy or completing challenging work at a bustling nonprofit, Sykes said she is gaining leadership experience.

“Even if I can’t choose a specific career or vocational path, I’m learning the types of environments I work well in and I enjoy being in,” she said. “I think this is totally a year of discernment and discovery, and I’m very much immersed in the process of that.”

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