Many of those currently without homes (usually referred to as “homeless”) have mental health issues. They range from severe and chronic issues to those brought on by their current living situation. Homelessness not only robs the victims of dignity but also of self-confidence and the ability to focus on things unrelated to their safety, their next meal and where to sleep. Pre-pandemic, Sister José Women’s Center provided basic services (shelter, food, showers, laundry) as well as professional services (social, medical, etc.) to 36 overnight guests and about 150 women a day.
In 2017 they began an empowerment program which included my proposal for weekly Zentangle classes. In the beginning Danita Noland, CZT taught with me and we had 8-12 students with a variety of needs beyond drawing patterns. Living on the street is a great teacher for survival but diminishes many of their social and learning skills- listening/hearing, paying attention, following directions (think “stepouts”), helping others, being kind, and how to focus- “one stroke at a time.” Fortunately, Terry and Cheryl came to the first class and every week for at least 18 months and they had retained most of their social interaction skills. Our classes included (and still do) lots of repetition, going slowly- very slowly, and focusing on: “relax,” “breathe,” “appreciate” and the wonderful suggestions in the 10 to Zen poem Molly has shared with us: “Let go of comparing… competing…judgments…anger…have a proper belly laugh at least once a day.” After a while, every time I’d say “There are no mistakes, only new opportunities” and “There are no erasers in Zentangle, just like in life’’ the guests would create a chorus followed by giggles.
From the beginning it was obvious we needed to provide lots of individual attention. Terry and Cheryl made that possible in the beginning. Immediately I began asking my Zentangle students to volunteer, so when Danita took a full-time job 3 months later, I had others wanting to help. We have a team of about 10 (many who are seasonal) and they all have one thing is common and it’s not their pen skills; they are kind, gentle and naturing. Within a year, Val Barsevich CZT37 retired from teaching and became my co-leader. We created a 25-week curriculum, regular sign ups (using SignUp Genius) and had classes numbering 12-17 guests. Our classes became the most popular elective for the women enrolled in the empowerment program and, unlike the others, women who were living on the street could also come to Zentangle.
Through our classes, the Zentangle team has been spreading kindness to those not use to receiving it while encouraging and naturing women who struggle with all depths of depression, anger, self-doubt, and fears. They tell us Zentangle has helped reduce their stress, increased their confidence and helped them feel more hopeful. We can see the changes in their faces, by their body language and how they treat each other.
The Sister José staff met the Covid-19 challenges with determination and creativity. They continued to provide food, health and hygiene supplies and clothes to women while following the social distancing protocols recommended by the CDC. The reconfigured interior spaces limited the number of women who can live there while receiving services, but their outreach is just as strong. Last month we re-started our weekly Zentangle program with the new protocols in place. Though fewer guests can attend our classes, their need for the benefits of the Zentangle Method are as great as ever.
The staff and community partners remain dedicated to the vision of the Sister José Women’s Center: being “passionate about creating a community where every homeless woman has a safe harbor and a path to a sustainable existence.” Our volunteer Zentangle team is pleased to be part of this effort!