Sister Tesa’s Opus: Hope, Place for Jailed Mothers
Non-Profit Units Mothers With Children
By Melanie Grayce West, Reprinted from The Wall Street Journal
Oct. 19, 2014 9:07 p.m. ET
After learning that she won the $1 million Opus Prize this past Thursday, Sister Teresa Fitzgerald said her mind instantly went to the most basic of needs: housing.
Sister Tesa, as she is known, plans to use her winnings to invest in additional space for the women and children who are served by her Queens-based nonprofit, Hour Children. For more than 25 years, Sister Tesa has been uniting jailed and formerly jailed women with their children in an effort to bring families together and stop the generational cycle of incarceration.
“We are desperately in need for more places for women to come” upon leaving prison, said Sister Tesa, the 68-year-old executive director of Hour Children. Without a home, women with children in foster or family care are unable to reunite with them or even start visitation.
Sister Tesa counts 80 families as part of her current network, though the prize may mean that she now can increase that number, she said. She is also interested in bringing older women who need to re-establish a relationship with their families under her umbrella, too. “That’s a need not being addressed,” she said.
The Opus Prize, administered this year by Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., is part of a group of philanthropies created by Gerry Rauenhorst, his family and the Opus Group, the privately owned Minneapolis-based construction and commercial real-estate company founded by Mr. Rauenhorst in 1953. Mr. Rauenhorst died in April of this year.
The prize is in its 11th year and given to faith-based entrepreneurs “who are doing amazing work to transform the lives of the very poor,” said Don Neureuther, the Opus Prize Foundation’s executive director. The process for selecting a winner takes nearly two years and finalists are vetted by the participating university and the Opus Foundation board members. This year’s runners-up, Father Joe Maier in Bangkok, Thailand, and Gollapalli Israel in Chennai, India, each received $100,000 for their work.
Sister Tesa’s model for helping formerly incarcerated women began when she fostered eight children in the late 1980s. Through that process, she realized that the mothers needed a greater array of support services, including housing, education, child care, vocational training and mentoring, placement in good-paying jobs, addiction counseling, individual and family therapy and a supportive environment with other women and mothers. Her program provides all those resources to women leaving New York state prisons, the majority of whom come from the five boroughs.
Ultimately, said Sister Tesa, the program is about reducing recidivism. Where the average rate is around 30% to 40%, she said, only about 3% to 4% of the women she works with return to prison. What keeps her going with this work are the small victories, she said—when whole families go to the park together or when a mother is able to navigate the subway system alone to get to a job.
“So many of the small successes in life that we take for granted, I see over and over again on a daily basis,” said Sister Tesa. “It seems insignificant, but it’s like winning the lottery for the women.”
Write to Melanie Grayce West at firstname.lastname@example.org