March is Women’s History Month! In addition, for more than 100 years, International Women’s Day has been celebrated on March 8th. To celebrate this day, we thought we’d talk about the work we do week in, week out with the women who come through our doors.
Named for long-time St. Francis House supporter Carolyn Connors, our Women’s Center is dedicated to the unique needs of our female guests. While women make up only 20% of our guest population, the number has been growing rapidly in recent years. Women experiencing homelessness and poverty have complex needs. At the Women’s Center, our focus is on providing a secure and comfortable place for our guests, a respite from the streets, and a place where they can get the help they need to survive, and to move beyond survival to rebuilding their lives.
Last September, Jessica Shaughnessy joined St. Francis House as the Women’s Center Activities Coordinator. Jess hit the ground running and, despite the constraints imposed by the pandemic, developed an ambitious program calendar for our female guests.
Sunday is a day of complete relaxation. Guests can take it easy and sign up for the morning or afternoon Game session, where they can play Bingo or board games, and participate in other fun activities. The women have many opportunities to win small prizes that they can choose for themselves from a prize box containing little luxuries such as face masks, hand cream, and hair clips.
On Mondays and Wednesdays, Gurleen, our art therapist, comes wheeling in for Art on Wheels, engaging our guests in a fun art project. One week it was sewing (pictured left, below), another week, Gurleen got people making their own emery boards! Monday afternoon means Stephanie from Workforce Development is hosting her Lifestyle Coaching group (pictured right, below), which focuses on “how to be the best you,” covering topics like mindfulness, movement, nutrition, and more.
Each Tuesday, Jessica runs the Self-Love group, engaging guests in activities and conversations around self-love, self-care, and self-esteem – keys to helping our guests define and meet their goals. On Tuesday afternoons, the women get to play film critic with the Movie Group, watching and discussing a different film each week. This Tuesday, we’re screening “Becoming”, Michelle Obama’s book tour documentary. There’s also an occasional “Coffee with Karen,” where guests meet with our President Karen LaFrazia to share their ideas and concerns.
The Relaxation Group, where Jess leads a discussion and has the guests practice ways to cope with stress through various meditation and relaxation activities, is held each Wednesday morning. Once a month, our Boston Health Care for the Homeless nurses, Frazell and Cara, run a Wednesday session focused on different topics associated specifically with women’s health.
On Thursdays, guests can sign up for the Creative Writing Group, sharing their own work, as well as the work of favorite writers. Other Thursday groups include the monthly Housing Workshop, where Savannah and Peggy from our Housing Navigation Department share their expertise on all topics related to housing. Twice a month, Colleen, a member of our Workforce Development team, runs a session called Maximize Your Income and Benefits, where guests can learn about benefits, employment, and training programs.
Friday there are no scheduled groups, but women are welcome to just hang out and relax. The Women’s Center is closed on Saturday.
In creating the monthly calendar, Jessica wanted to have a good mix of groups: creativity, mindfulness, relaxation, and educational. “The program schedule is ambitious, but there were so many people from the different Saint Francis House teams who came up with great ideas, and who wanted to run sessions. The enthusiasm and support from the staff, the collaboration across multiple departments, has been very gratifying, and a good example of how our teams work together,” Jessica says. She added that, “so many women who were coming to the Women’s Center to just be in a safe and secure spot were missing out on some of the valuable services we offer. With the variety of groups that are now available, our guests are more aware and more engaged.”
The most difficult thing Jessica has to do is turn guests away when there’s no room for them. The limit for each group is seven. Post-COVID, the hope is to grow the size of each group to ten. The limitation is a recognition that the Women’s Center is small, but the smaller size makes it easier to engage and involve all of the participants, without the group size becoming overwhelming.
The Women’s Center averages 25-30 guests each day, with 80-100 unique visitors in the course of the month.
Jessica will also be running the annual Women’s Day of Renewal in May. While, due to COVID, the program will be different than it’s been in the past – when guests were pampered with haircuts and massages – attendees will be provided with boxed lunches and small gift bags stuffed with goodies.
At present, Jessica is the only staff member dedicated fully to the Women’s Center. St. Francis House is hiring another person to focus on one-on-one interactions with the guests, while Jess will concentrate on the groups and activities that help make the Women’s Center such a vibrant and meaningful place.