By Maureen Smith
MOUND BAYOU — St. Gabriel has been a school, a parish and a community service center. This year, it started a new chapter in its history as a community center run by the community.
When the Sisters of Mercy left the center in 2015, a community of four Franciscans took over. They found a set of vibrant programs, a capable staff and an appreciative clientele. What was lacking, according to executive director Sister Monica Mary DeQuardo, OSF, was a sense of ownership. The sisters launched a reorganization aimed at moving the people already on staff into the right spots.
The new organizational model is based on an administrative team. Trena Robinson, a nine-year veteran of the St. Gabriel team has been promoted from administrative assistant to director of advancement, communications and public relations.
“I was hesitant initially when Sister approached me, I had never written grants, but I was wiling to try,” said Robinson. She holds an MBA and has experience as a paralegal.
Tiffany Mitchell has been advanced from GED instructor to Administrative Assistant. Mitchell studied at both Clark Atlanta and Xavier University, earning a masters in biology and teaching. When a position opened at St. Gabriel to teach GED classes she took it. The new job is a full time position, but still gives her the flexibility she needs as a mom. “It’s very important when you can help people – even if its just something simple like sending a fax. The closest place may be the library in Cleveland and many people don’t have transportation,” Mitchell said. She added that the thrift store and social service programs are big helps to the people in the area.
Mavis Honorable has been named Chief Operating Officer in addition to her responsibility as assistant director. Sister DeQuardo continues to serve as the Executive Director. Honorable grew up in Mound Bayou, but spent much of her career in Chicago. “I started at SoftSheen hair care products for five years. I was looking in the paper and I saw that DePaul University had this program for continuing education. After I finished that I started at a steel company as a consultant.
“Then, again, I was reading in the paper and saw an ad from Allstate saying ‘if you think you can do this, call’ and I thought I could do it! I worked there for 10 years in their technology program; I helped implement their agency programs,” she said. She returned home when her father and sister became ill, taking a job at Monsanto. When that operation closed, she found a job at the Mercy Center.
The team meets weekly to discuss long-term goals as well as day-to-day operations and challenges. Sister DeQuardo believes these meetings have opened up lines of communication that help the staff work better together.
The center offers almost a dozen programs. A senior outreach coordinated by Dwana Lyles, provides activities and meals to senior citizens in the area. A sewing class gives women a skill they can use to make money and a boutique where they can sell their creations. In some cases, people come pick their fabrics and have items custom made.
Candace Chase runs an emergency assistance office, distributing nearly 200 bags of food every month as well as helping people who might need assistance to pay emergency utility and medical bills. She also oversees the volunteer operations. Service groups from around the country come to Mound Bayou to help around the community every year.
Volunteers staff a thrift shop where people can buy low-cost clothing and household items. The center still operates a computer lab for people who want to take online classes or need access to a computer. GED classes help those who left school early get back on track. On the wall of fame for that program is a photo of a student who went on to earn a college degree.
Families in the area can enroll in the Parents as Teachers program to have an educator come to their home once a month from a child’s birth until three years of age. The educators help the mothers give their babies the best possible start in life.
“We encourage them to read to the children, talk to them, listen to them and how empowering this is to the child,” explained Clestine Davis, one of the educators.
“If you do this, the child will grow to know their mom is always there and they can talk to their moms. Communication skills start at the early age of three months, even though the baby can’t talk back, they are looking at you and they are listening!”
She and Martha Black record data on their visits to provide to the national Parents as Teachers program. If they notice a possible delay, the pair can refer the parents for professional help early. Parents in the program are invited to a monthly meeting at the center for an educational program as well.
Davis worked at St. Gabriel school before it closed in 1990. She said she and many in the community miss the school, but the center continues to offer resources to strengthen Mound Bayou- and for many, a way to come home.
To learn more about the programs and staff or to contribute to the programs, visit www.saintgabrielmc.org.
By Maureen Smith