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Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin
March 15, 2002 Issue

Youth, young adults retreat to Chicago to serve

Group from the diocese helps shelter and Catholic Workers

By Helen Exner

Tutu is a homeless woman in uptown Chicago. Nearly every day around noon, she enters a nondescript office building and takes the elevator to the second floor, passing a sign in the lobby that says "No Loitering."

She is one of several dozen homeless women who frequent Sarah's Circle, a daytime shelter. I visited the shelter along with two-dozen volunteers from the Green Bay Diocese.

The service trip was made possible through a grant from the Catholic Foundation. Some of the 24 volunteers were assigned to Sarah's Circle, others to the Catholic Workers House and Su Casa.

I arrived in the morning and stayed until 3 p.m., helping the staff with small tasks.

When I first entered the shelter, after being buzzed through the thick security door, I wasn't overly impressed with the room. It was almost sterile, the fluorescent lights and linoleum reminding me of a nursing home. But I soon discovered just how valuable this unassuming space is to the women who visit every week.

The first women to arrive buzzed impatiently to be let in at five minutes to noon. Large, wet snowflakes were just starting to fall outside. Finally a staffer let them in, and each woman signed her name in a logbook, some more legibly than others. I tried deciphering their signatures and recorded them in an attendance book. Many names had a long line of dots beside them, indicating frequent visits to Sarah's Shelter, while newcomers had to be added to the list.

Most women sat quietly in the main sitting area, some write letters or eagerly read the mail they pick up at the shelter, which serves as a mailing address for them. A few women have found housing, but they continue to drop by for the free lunch at 2:30 and other women's company.

Among the early arrivals was Tutu, a Vietnamese woman who gets her nickname from her given name, Thu. I met Tutu as I sorted donated shoes in a storage room near the front door.

A petite woman in her 50s, Tutu eagerly helped me separate suitable winter shoes from disintegrating sandals and high heels. As we worked, she frequently asked with childlike enthusiasm, "Where I put these shoes, Helen?" Glancing at the shoes -- a pair of flimsy foam sandals -- I replied, "Why don't we toss those, Tutu." She would nod rapidly and throw the shoes into the reject pile, which was alarmingly large.

Apparently many people who donate shoes to the homeless forget that even homeless women need two shoes, not just one. The shoes ranged in quality, from astonishingly worn-out sandals to pricey Italian leather shoes that looked as if they had been worn for two months and then tossed.

Chatting pleasantly but sometimes incoherently, Tutu told me how she moved to America from Vietnam 20 years ago. She misses her family back home, she said. She used to live in Florida, where she had a great job assembling computer parts.

"Now Chicago my home," she said, skipping over the part of how she became homeless.

I told her that I sing with the Jazz Singers at Lawrence University.

"Ooo..." she exclaimed, "Helen! Music so important! That's good, good!"

A woman used to come to play the piano, she said. "Why don't she come back, Helen?" she asked. As if I would know.

Tutu knew that by helping with this chore she would get a free pair of shoes. But it was clear that she had difficulty focusing on our conversation.

Staffers told us that about 70% of the shelter's visitors have drug problems, so I suspect Tutu's limited attention span might be drug-related.

Whatever her problems, Tutu left a strongly positive impression on me with her bustle and enthusiasm for life. While we tossed and sorted the piles of trashy and classy shoes, she complimented my auburn hair. Then unexpectedly, she pulled off the jaunty cap and black scarf that covered her head. Her salt-and-pepper hair was dyed auburn in streaks.

"Beautiful, Tutu!" I praised, delighted and surprised. "We're both redheads!"

She seemed pleased to hear that. For the rest of the afternoon, she kept her hair uncovered, suddenly proud to show off her locks.

(Exner lives in Shawano and is a senior at Lawrence University in Appleton, majoring in history. She wants a career in journalism.)

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