When Karen Vlasek walked into the kitchen of the Catherine McAuley Center’s Transitional Housing Program, she took one look at the cramped space, dated cabinetry and dilapidated appliances, turned to Jennifer Tibbetts, transitional housing program manager, and said: “What if we can do something for you?”
That was the beginning of a partnership between Vlasek’s organization, Soroptimist of Cedar Rapids/Marion, and the Catherine McAuley Center. Their goal is to transform the outdated kitchen into an accessible, functional space where homeless women can learn the skills needed to transition to a permanent living situation.
Barriers to success
Catherine McAuley’s Transitional Housing Program provides homeless women with a safe place to live and resources to address the issues that contributed to their homelessness. The program’s physical structure has limited its ability to address one critical need: personal health and nutrition.
“The glaring issue is the kitchen,” Tibbetts said.
The current kitchen space, a converted bedroom in an old convent that serves as the program’s home, has three main problems, according to Tibbetts. First, the tight quarters accessed through a narrow doorway can trigger a negative response in the high percentage of program participants who have experienced either prior abuse or mental health issues.
“If a woman doesn’t feel safe in her living situation, she won’t be fully engaged in the program,” Tibbetts said.
The current space also does not allow for hands-on cooking classes and nutrition education programs that will help the women build relationships and learn necessary skills.
“We’ve had success teaching those skills but only on a small scale,” Tibbetts said. “The current space is confining and doesn’t allow for a community environment.”
Finally, program participants lack a functional space for planning and preparing their own meals, for which they are responsible.
Tibbetts, who has managed the Transitional Housing Program since 2008, has long dreamed of a kitchen environment conducive to learning and practicing healthy habits. As a result of the collaboration with the Soroptimist club, “my dream is now coming to life,” she said.
The power of sisterhood
Soroptimist International is dedicated to improving the lives of women and girls throughout the world. The global women’s organization was founded in 1921 by women who wanted to make a difference in their community but were not permitted to join existing male service organizations. They took their name from two Latin words, “soro” and “optima,” that translate to “best for women.”
Vlasek, who has been a Soroptimist since 1986, said she was motivated to pursue the kitchen remodel project because the objectives of the Transitional Housing Project aligned so closely with the Soroptimist mission.
“Soroptimists want to empower women through education and a healthy environment to improve their living situation,” she said.
Vlasek took the idea to the local club, which decided to make the project its main focus for 2013.
“We are a women’s organization doing things for women and we wanted to help,” said Mary Van Houten, president of Soroptimist of Cedar Rapids/Marion.
The kitchen remodel will involve removing a wall separating the kitchen from a dining area to create a large, accessible kitchen space that will accommodate all 15 program participants and nutrition training facilitators. A large center island will provide an expansive work surface and three cook tops for hands-on cooking instruction. New cabinetry and appliances, including an industrial-size refrigerator, will enable the women to practice healthy food skills and give them individual space to store personal food items.
Soroptimist members have identified skills they can to contribute to the project, including project coordination, labor and education. Members also have engaged in various social activities with Transitional Housing Program participants to build a sense of community.
The local chapter has secured a $9,500 grant from Soroptimist International of the Americas to fund a portion of the $51,125 project cost. The project committee is seeking donations of money, in-kind services and materials to make up the rest.
Soroptimist members hope to raise a good portion of the additional funds at the chapter’s fifth annual “Raise a Glass” fundraiser at The Secret Cellar in Shueyville on Friday. The outdoor event will include live music by Kevin B.F. Burt, light appetizers, wine and beer tasting, and a silent auction and raffle. Proceeds will be directed to the kitchen remodel project.
Tibbetts said Soroptimist’s involvement with the Transitional Housing Program is a testament to the power of community.
“When you are able to connect and build, you are able to be that much more powerful,” she said. “This shows how strong sisterhood is. We are all here to support each other.”