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Women’s Hearth offers warmth, safety, community

By Sr. Sue Orlowski, SP

Many first time visitors to Transitions’ Women’s Hearth comment on the immediate sense of warmth and vitality they feel when they walk in the door, said Susan Tyler-Babkirk, program director.

For some women, the impact of this downtown Spokane drop-in day center is immediate, meeting their needs for a safe place off the street, a warm shower or a coat to stave off the winter chill.

For many, the impact is not immediately apparent. Its influence on the lives of women who come seeking safety, community and services is more subtle.

Susan Tyler-Babkirk, Women's Hearth
Susan Tyler-Babkirk stands with a woman tree. The paper hands have inspirational phrases the women wrote.

“We create space to let good things happen and we treat women in a non-judgmental way,” said Susan.

She describes the Hearth as a setting for women who seek a supportive community and connection to resources. Many are marginalized by challenges of isolation, homelessness, cognitive disabilities, mental illness and recovery from alcohol or drug abuse.  The openness, forgiveness and acceptance of staff and volunteers are the groundwork to help participants find success.

The Hearth is one of the Transitions’ programs started by the Sisters of Providence, the Sisters of the Holy Names, the Dominican Sisters and the Franciscan Sisters of Philadelphia.   Other programs include the Transitional Living Center, Miryam’s House, the New Leaf Bakery Café and EduCare.

The Hearth is a mission- and values-driven program that maintains a respectful, positive atmosphere,” Susan said.

“The Hearth creates community. It engages women where they are in their lives with few demands,” said Susan.  “Women can be where they are.  That approach fits our mission and values.”

That approach for her is a spiritual practice that was part of her values growing up in a family who were active in the community.

Her parents were role models in lending a hand to people in their community in and through the Unitarian Universalist church and their neighborhood.

At church, she learned she could have an impact that mattered.  Susan’s mother had a heart for the marginalized and was kind to people. Because her parents, especially her father, were civic-minded, her family often discussed politics around the dinner table when Susan was young.

Growing up in the 1980s under “Reaganomics,” she saw the division between the rich and the poor.  That strengthened her commitment to care for people in need.

Susan was six years old when her family came to Spokane. While studying political science at the University of Washington, she did an internship with the American Civil Liberties Union.  After college she earned a certificate as a paralegal.

Her career included work in the King County District Court and the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office, including six years in the family law division where she coordinated a mediation program that helped unmarried parents negotiate the legal system.

“Aware that I was a person of privilege, I felt that I had information others needed to make difficult decisions in their lives.  I could pass on some of what I knew to help people,” Susan said.

With the court system, she networked with nonprofit organizations and interacted with volunteers. 

When the position of volunteer coordinator at the Women’s Hearth opened, she applied because she felt the Hearth’s mission matched her values.

At the Hearth, she started the Legal Preparedness Program to help women who needed legal services. Since its inception and under her successor, Kathy McFaul, that program has grown to include regular legal information clinics with community partners, the Spokane County Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyers Program and Gonzaga Law School.

Susan said services at the Women’s Hearth include recovery support, activities, art, music, hygiene supplies, showers, computer/internet access, voicemail, housing referrals and more.

It offers classes for the women who do not fit into traditional classes or social clubs. Classes include ones that focus on life skills and ones on fine arts—art, music, dancing and reader’s theater.

Many people help the Women’s Hearth. There are four full-time and four part-time staff, more than 50 volunteers, two AmeriCorps volunteers, students from Whitworth, Gonzaga and Eastern Washington universities, members of churches, and other individuals and groups.

Because students often come from different socioeconomic backgrounds than the women,  Susan said, they gain first-hand experience of the challenges that homeless and poor women experience on a daily basis.

With federal funding cuts in recent years, Susan said the Hearth functions on a “tight budget,” so volunteers are vital.

After five years as volunteer coordinator, Susan left the Women’s Hearth and worked for Adult Protective Services.

When the position for program director opened up at the Hearth, she jumped at the opportunity to return to the “program I love.”

Her experiences at Adult Protective Services, however, added to her knowledge for working with poor and vulnerable people.  Her position includes grant writing and collecting statistical data.

“Grant writing is important, but challenging because it is time-consuming and the information required by the foundations changes frequently,” said Susan, whose heart is with the women.

“My best days are when I have time to enjoy this wonderful community along with doing the administrative tasks,” she said.

Data collecting is an important part of raising funds necessary for the program to run.

I have to balance the head work with the heart work,” she said.

Susan feels that the women at the Women’s Hearth impact her life every day with their gifts of strength, joy and participation in this amazing community. 

“Because Hearth programs treat the women with care and dignity,” she said, “the women learn to not let the pain in their lives define them.”

For information, call 328-6702 email or visit

Copyright © December 2014 - The Fig Tree