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Social enterprise helps women overcome barriers to jobs

By Deidre Jacobson

Now she is helping Transitional Programs for Women (Transitions)—a nonprofit in Spokane that sponsors programs to foster personal growth and wholeness for women and children in need—develop a social enterprise for women they serve.

Sheila Fitzgerald
Dominican Sister Sheila Fitzgerald

 Leaders consider this program a “new leaf,” for Transitions, which formed in 1995 bringing together Miryam’s House, the Women’s Hearth and the Transitional Living Center (TLC) and TLC EduCare under a board with representatives of the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, Sisters of Providence and Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters.  It will address employment needs of women in those programs.

A bakery-café with a job-training kitchen is the centerpiece of the program that will prepare participants for work in the food service industry.

“We are now seeking start-up money,” said Sheila.  “Eventually, the social enterprise income will be reinvested in training and the operations will be self-sustaining.”

The program will include six months of training, 12 weeks of food preparation and 12 weeks of on-site work experience, including management services and customer-relations. 

The curriculum fosters life skills to help women overcome their barriers to employment.  In addition to assisting students with employment and life skills, a job coordinator will help graduates find employment.

The goal is to move the graduates into community employment, but there may be jobs in the program itself for some.

The long-term plan includes sustainable practices, such as purchasing foods locally and employing homeless people to grow food in gardens at Transition’s TLC property.

Sheila expects the pilot group to include eight women who will develop products and connect with businesses that agree to contract for services, such as ordering meals and products.

In addition to offering retail outlets, this bakery-café will provide work-site deliveries and catering.

Sheila grew up in a family of nine on a farm in a small town in Nebraska, the homestead of her great grandparents from Ireland.  Her father died when she was young.  The community helped support the family through the transition.  The children worked to keep the farm going, and they worked for room and board to attend a private school in Omaha. 

Witnessing the lives of the Dominican sisters who taught in her schools inspired her to enter a life of service.

After earning a bachelor’s in education and a master’s in curriculum, she began teaching kindergarten through eighth grade and then developed curricula for the school system.

As superintendent for 15 elementary schools and three high schools in Tulsa, Okla., she observed inequities of the segregated school system and worked with the diocese to implement desegregation. 

To prepare for it, she helped organize summer social awareness programs as an opportunity for black and white children to interact.

Then Sheila traveled around the United States as a consultant helping schools staffed by her Dominican community move from Dominican leadership to parish leadership. 

“Some inner-city schools were pitiful in resources but rich in commitment to maintain quality education,” she said.

In 1982, Sheila was elected as one of four councillors to the prioress, the leader of the national Sinsinawa Dominican Community during a time of transition from the traditional ministries based in schools to responding to broader community needs.

In 1990, Sheila came to Spokane for a sabbatical at Gonzaga University.  She stayed on to co-direct and then direct the CREDO program that provided renewal for people in ministry and missionary work around the world.

After four years, she returned to the Midwest to work in parish ministry in Iowa and Nebraska, including her home parish.  She was able to help her family care for her mother, who lived to be 99 and was still on the family farm.

After Sheila returned to Spokane in 2002 as prioress of the Dominican Center, she became acquainted with the work of Transitions and volunteered at the Women’s Hearth, a day center providing a variety of services for women.

In 2005, Transitions asked her to lead a feasibility study on the viability of a social enterprise program.

She organized a steering committee of clients, staff and administration in Transitions.  They brainstormed ideas and consulted with Gonzaga’s Venture Lab program with business students.

They decided to recommend an employment and job-training program, including culinary instruction with an emphasis on baking and food service education.  The business plan also includes an outlet for the creative works of the women in Transitions programs.

An opportunity opened for partnership with Catholic Charities in their offer to use a commercial kitchen  in one of their locations and a space for the bakery at the building they are remodeling on Fifth and Division that will also house Catholic Charities’ administrative offices. The partnership helped with the initial capital costs.

“When the building is complete, we will open our bakery-café”., she said.  “Training will begin in the commercial kitchen as early as May.  The long-term goal is to move 25 to 30 women through the program each year.”

“Crafts, art, cards, handwork and books created by the women from Transitions programs will be displayed at its outlet, so that participation can include women who are not able to enter the training,” said Sheila. 

The bakery-café will offer a venue for educating the community on issues homeless and unemployed women face.

For information, call 455-4249.

Copyright © 2008 The Fig Tree