SISTER BARBARA: I’m sister Barbara Ann Zeller. Sister of Providence from St. Mary of the Woods and I am the president and CEO of Providence Self Sufficiency Ministries and the chair and president of Guerin Inc.
I — in 1994, I was ready to retire from Providence Retirement home. I had been there as the administrator for 12 and a half years and I thought I had done what I could do for the facility. So then I decided to begin a new career. And I was really troubled by all of the ads in the newspapers about foster children, suffering abuse and neglect who were needing some foster homes. And I was also troubled by the fact that the New Albany community, Floyd County in general, did not have a program for homelessness. So, at any rate, I decided to meet with the sisters I was living with. We were living in a convent on Daisy Lane in New Albany. I happened to be the youngest at 48 and sister Helen was the oldest at 82, and asked them if we would mind if we’d open up our convent to children who might need to come to live with us as foster children. They loved the idea. So we turned that convent into a home for children and became foster parents. So that was the beginning of the Providence House program. And then the other side bar — because they knew that I had to be able put bread and butter on the table for these children, so thats when I decided to find out if there might be some grants available for the homeless. So, at any rate, I went to the New Albany Housing Authority Executive Director and I asked if there might be any HUD funding available and he said, “Sister, we would love for you to do your program right here in the New Albany Housing Authority Development neighbors.” Because I really wanted to develop a seamless program of self sufficiency. Supposedly, the New Albany Housing Authority Program is for transitional housing anyway. So I said “Great!” and signed a contract with him. Then the sisters and I went through foster parent training so that we could become licensed foster parents. So we started both initiatives concomitantly. My favorite thing about the children is that when our first child was coming with his case worker, she had her finger on the doorbell and she said, “What are we going to explain to this child? You know he’s living with 6 women.” So anyway, she said, “The church ladies live here and you’ll be living with them.” So that’s when we became the “Church Ladies of New Albany.” So that was really the very beginning and within 10 days of our license we had 4 foster children living with us. We were taking the children to their schools —they went to four different schools — took them to schools, taught them about butterflies, and how to grow tomatoes and read them bed time stories, etc. So we were doing that — obviously 24/7 — and in addition to that, we had gone into the Housing Authority Neighbors and literally began a program of self sufficiency. Meaning we taught GED (adult basic education), we had itinerant nursing, we had a licensed counselor who worked with us. We began organizing some community groups to do volunteer work. We’d set up a food pantry, a clothing co-opt and had actually opened a child care center for 103 children, all within a very brief period of time. That was really the genesis of the beginning of Providence Self Sufficiency Ministries. Then what happened, every one of two children who came to Providence House were coming back to us again. Either the child, himself or herself, called their case worker (with the case having been closed) and said “Mom has fallen off the wagon, can I please go back to Providence House?” Or teachers were calling DCS and saying that they began noticing abuse or neglect again. So the children were readmitted to the DCS system. Literally, that one out of two bothered me fiercely, thinking that there had to be a way to break this generational cycle. And what was remarkable to me, we were taking care of abused and neglected children whose parents were in our GED program, our ABE program, our self efficiency classes. So it was just a global, cosmic program that we really embraced. And it was something new for all of us sisters, we learned so much. We were educators by trade, by profession. And the children of the families taught us so very much. It was with unwary perseverance and a true demonstration of that it’s the heart that really makes all the difference.