Franciscan Influences: Leading and Guiding

Stephanie Ali Features

This essay is part of a series in which lay people describe the impact the friars have had on them. The most recent reflection appeared in the Nov. 20 issue of HNP Today and was written by a staff member of the gift shop at the Province’s parish in Tampa, Fla.

Below, a staff member at Create, the Harlem, N.Y., social services program founded 40 years ago, describes how her departure from corporate life after Sept. 11 and her connection to the friars have brought her not only satisfaction, but peace and joy.

I was a corporate America middle manager working on confidential payroll for a Fortune 500 company when the events of Sept. 11, 2001 occurred. I was responsible for a team of technicians who covered a large majority of Manhattan. On that day, which will remain etched in the minds of all, I could stay busy only by trying to avoid thoughts of what evil could have allowed this to occur. I spent my morning calling technicians on their walker, to account for them and to see how I could assist with contacting family members who may have been in the downtown area. Generally, I would have been in the field traveling with the technicians; however, on this day, I was scheduled for a big meeting with senior management to discuss possible layoffs.

As I talked to the technicians — getting phone numbers for wives and children to provide direction on what to do next — I also had the worry of my mother who was in Washington, being evaluated for potential amputation of her left leg due to diabetes. In addition, my youngest daughter was a temp worker at a corporation on the 94th floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower and my middle daughter was in building seven. I had no idea where they were since cell phones were not working; landlines and walkers were the only way to communicate.

As I was making the calls, so calm and in control, my thoughts were racing. On my mind were questions — what does this mean, and what did it mean for me personally? By hearing the news throughout the day, I knew that Mychal Judge, OFM, was the first casualty of the 9/11 disaster and I wondered how our community of Franciscans was faring with the tragic loss.

Life-changing Decision
All of these things brought me to the decision that, because I had spent 36 years in corporate America — 32 of which were with one company — I had made, spent and, hopefully, shared all the money I made. I began to question whether this was what I should be doing. I asked for divine intervention to tell me where I should channel my energies. To my dismay, I heard nothing. At the end of 30 days, I had made my decision “enough of corporate America.” I needed to find something worthwhile to do, but what? I did not involve anyone in my dilemma about what I should do to give back.

During this time, I’d become familiar with the Holy Name Province friars were in residence at my parish, the Church of All Saints. They included Charlie Gilmartin, OFM, Glenn Humphrey, OFM, Christopher Keenan, OFM, Neil O’Connell, OFM, and Daniel Sulmasy, OFM. There was also Benedict Taylor, OFM, who celebrated Masses in the parish when needed. Little did I know at the time of the vision he turned into a reality.

I began by volunteering in a Protestant after-school program that supported the parish school giving them a year and a half of service, while making myself useful in the parish — cleaning, washing, ironing. One day, Fr. Chris approached me asking for my assistance with a program called Create, Inc., a transitional shelter for young men between the ages of 18 and 25. As I listened attentively to Fr. Chris, my mind was thinking, “you are the mother of three daughters. What do you know about young men?” I shared this concern with Fr. Chris, who asked me to give it a try and see if I could make a go of it three days a week running the computer room. Never once did I realize this was the divine direction I was seeking.

In 2004, I began working with Paul O’Keeffe, OFM, assisting him in the computer room and covering for him on days he needed off. Our mission was to lead, guide and attempt to show the way to young men who had no social support, lacked basic education and had come from abusive childhoods. I thought we were attempting mission impossible; the time allotted to assist these young men seemed only sufficient to get their attention to begin assisting them. It felt satisfying to try to fulfill the mission statement of Create: “We are here for the one individual who is willing to accept our help to move forward.”

Instruments of Hope and Light 
That was nine years ago. I am still here and cannot imagine doing anything else. My hair is grey and I don’t zip up and down the four flights of stairs like I use to, but I am here and committed.

Over the past almost 10 years, I cannot count the young men who have come through the doors of the computer room, or engaged in the mentoring program headed by Fr. Chris and supported by retired business people and active FDNY members. In the mentoring program, we listen to where they are their thoughts on where they want to be. From there, we attempt to guide them to employment or education that will support the move forward to independent living. We have had a few who graduated from high school others acquired their GED. Some have joined the military, but the majority are attempting to find their way to make it in this demanding world. We have supported endeavors to acquire driver’s licenses and pushed all to take civil service tests. These young men also have been instrumental in supporting the All Saints Food Pantry, providing service hours to those in need, through the assistance of the Holy Name Province. Some of our young men have been featured in the New York Times Catholic Charities Neediest Cases.

The mentor group engages in weekly dialogue. We meet as a group in the evening one or two times a month for four hours over a meal — food being an excellent dialogue starter. I am in contact with the mentees weekly, some daily. I am always seeking new members for the group while following up with those who have moved on.

The reward in watching these young men attempt to grow and find themselves is true “chicken soup for the soul,” something I may never had experienced if not for the Franciscans of Holy Name Province. They are true instruments of peace, love, faith, hope, light and joy.

I am the mother of three grown daughters, grandmother to three grandsons and two granddaughters, surrogate grandmother and caregiver to a two-year-old that came into my life suddenly 15 months ago.

“For it is in giving that we receive.” Amen.

 Stephanie Ali is director of the young adults program at Create, the social services program founded in 1973 by Benedict Taylor, OFM. Two years ago, a reflection by the director of Create, Ralph Perez, was published here.