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By Carmen Fontanez, Co-Founder of the Franciscan Peacemakers Social Enterprise
Back in 2002, before starting at Franciscan Peacemakers I had a prayer I would say everyday: "Lord, help me help your people." I didn't know exactly what that meant but wanted to be of service for the greater good. I saw my mother struggling to raise 3 daughters on her own. She needed assistance but always felt a sense of shame upon receiving the help. I wanted to help people in some capacity without making them feel ashamed.
When I met Deacon Steve, I already had my taste of nonprofits and didn't want to engage in another due to financial concerns that come along with the nonprofit territory, but when I met with him and heard what he was doing, it reminded me so much of the Gospels...Jesus going out to those in need. I felt deep in my soul that I needed to be here. I was only 23 years old and had a lot of self-doubt. I felt I had so much to learn but knew God would help me along the way and God did. I got to know the women on the streets and the families in the neighborhood so personally. We were building relationships, building trust which is key to healing and change. I was able to get my social work undergrad degree at Mount Mary University with the gentle prodding of Deacon Steve. He made it possible for me to have the work, family, and education balance, for which I am forever grateful.
Five years later, a former participant in our program helped me realize what I wanted to do with the next phase of my life...become a counselor/therapist. After hearing so many heartbreaking stories of abuse and neglect from the women in our programs and on the streets, I wanted to help the women reclaim their sense of dignity and worth, walking the journey of healing together with them. Soon after graduating from UWM with my masters degree I started earning my hours as a clinician at Catholic Charities. About the same time, Deacon Steve and I took a trip down to Nashville to meet Becca Stevens and was introduced to Thistle Farms. This was the big game changer that helped propel us to where we are as an organization today.
It was exciting and scary all at the same time. I became the Director of Clare Community, our 2-year housing program and was helping run our social enterprise. It was challenging but exciting. I put earning my therapy hours on hold to fully develop our new project. There were ups and downs as with any new project but with the overdose and death of a participant in our housing program and the mental instability of another it was just too much to handle and I had to leave. This was one of the hardest decisions to make in my life. This organization ran through my blood but I had to put my own mental health first.
I was gone for 3 years working at another nonprofit and was contacted by Deacon Steve when that organization filed for bankruptcy. Deacon Steve thought he was crazy for asking me to come back and I thought I was crazy for accepting the offer! In these recent 3 years since I came back I was grateful to be reconnected with what I was passionate about.
I was able to heal old wounds, connect on a deeper level with my coworkers and teach new participants in the program how to make our wonderful products. Although all these great things were happening, there was a different kind of urge in me to pick up where I left off with attaining my clinical hours to become a therapist.
After attending a girls weekend with two of my close friends it became apparent this is what I wanted to pursue. At a meeting the very next week, we were discussing another organization, HIR Wellness Institute, that stopped by pre-pandemic to share their information and something deep inside of me told me to get in touch with them.
I inquired about externship roles which they were open to. This organization was everything I wanted to encompass in my own practice and just felt right. I've been working there after working my full-time shift at Franciscan Peacemakers since April and love it. HIR Wellness Institute offered me a full-time position in December which I have accepted.
This again is a bittersweet goodbye for me as I feel Peacemakers has been a baby I have nurtured and developed for so many years which in turn has nurtured and developed me. I have learned so much through our volunteers and donors regarding their tremendous love and generosity, from my beautiful coworkers with their passion and determination, to the women we serve on the streets with their vulnerability and strength.
They have all been wonderful lessons of life and love for me but the biggest force of change and love has been Deacon Steve. His passion and love for this work and for me has helped make the impossible possible. I am forever grateful for his kindness, his compassion, his tough love and determination.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart! I'm sure I will still be involved in some capacity with Franciscan Peacemakers so this is not really a goodbye but a see you later.