Women’s Circle: A place of opportunity

Sister Joan Carusillo, CSC, assists two clients from Haiti, Gurley Merise, left, and Marie Francigne, who are strengthening their computing skills during one of 30 weekly classes offered at the Women’s Circle in Boynton Beach, Florida.
Sister Joan Carusillo, CSC, assists two clients from Haiti, Gurley Merise, left, and Marie Francigne, who are strengthening their computing skills during one of 30 weekly classes offered at Women’s Circle in Boynton Beach, Florida.

Sixteen years in the United States, and the woman sitting with Sister Joan Carusillo, CSC, still couldn’t speak English. The mother of four worked nights, cleaning her children’s school after her husband returned from his day job. But with her youngest starting kindergarten, she explained through an interpreter, she finally had time to learn. “My family can all speak English,” she said. “And I can’t understand. I’m left out.”

It’s a familiar theme among student-clients at Women’s Circle, Inc., in Boynton Beach, Florida. The non-profit organization caters to women with low incomes, many of them immigrants, seeking to close the gaps that distance them from society and, in many cases, their own families. “Women’s Circle was started specifically for women,” explains Sister Joan, “because the sacrifices women make often leave them last.”

Founded in 2000 by Sister Lorraine Ryan, MMS, and Sister Joan, the center offers education, career and personal development assistance with the mission of empowering women “to realize their full potential … and to gain financial stability.”

To date, says Sister Joan, more than 3,000 women have benefited from their involvement with Women’s Circle, which has helped secure nearly a thousand jobs for its clients. Among the success stories, the woman who once struggled to communicate with her family now owns and runs a local house cleaning business.

Embracing people’s needs

The sisters—Joan, a former a high school teacher, principal, and hospital mission services administrator, and Lorraine, who had created family health and midwifery programs in India—met in Florida after moving to the area to care for aging parents.

Seeking ways to minister in their new community, Sister Lorraine went out to area neighborhoods and talked with women about their concerns and needs. The recurring response: “They didn’t have jobs, couldn’t get jobs,” Sister Joan says. “They wanted skills that could help them find employment and improve their families’ lives.” With her Congregation’s blessing, Sister Joan agreed to help launch Women’s Circle, which the two women co-directed through 2011.

Every year, roughly 300 women register for the center’s classes in English, literacy, citizenship, computer skills, sewing and crocheting. The organization also offers weekly tutoring sessions and monthly discussion groups that address topics such as health awareness and child abuse prevention.

Clients make up an international palette. Most literacy program enrollees are Haitian women, many of whom first learn to read and write in Creole, then make the leap to English. And there are Latina clients from Mexico and Central and South America, and Muslim women from Pakistan and Jordan. “Some of our clients are well educated,” Sister Joan says. “And they may have had careers in their own countries and are now just working on the English.”

In tandem with effective programming, Sister Joan attributes the center’s continued success to the inclusive spirit of the place. “We provide a safe environment,” she says, “where people feel respected and are treated with dignity.”

Building on faith

To welcome more women eager for self-sufficiency and community engagement, the center is expanding its course offerings and square footage—with a building addition that broke ground in January 2019.

The project is an endeavor of faith. With only four paid staffers, the center runs on volunteer power—nearly 70 individuals who teach, tutor, organize events and projects, and work on committees. Among them are Sister Lorraine, who retired in July 2018, and Sister Joan, who officially retired in 2011, yet serves on the board, fundraises and substitute teaches. “I have loved it,” she says of her ministry. “The women are so eager and delightful. They’ve been through so much, knowing hardship we’ll never know. And they are grateful.”

In its workforce, economy and civic relations, the community also benefits from the center’s work and presence. In 2017, the Catholic Realtors and Real Estate Professionals of Boca Raton, Florida, thanked and honored Sisters Joan and Lorraine with the “Golden Rule Award” for their “compassion for others [that] mirrors the spirit of Christ … and the tenets which comprise the Golden Rule.”

Built on these good relationships—as well as grants and donations, and support from the Sisters of the Holy Cross Ministry With the Poor Fund—the ministry continues drawing women in to its welcoming shore. “God has gotten us through this far,” says Sister Joan. “It’s God’s work, not ours, and God will have to provide. Meanwhile, we do everything we can.”

Expanding the Circle
To better serve its student clients, Women’s Circle, Inc., is enlarging its facility. A 2,500-square-foot addition will feature a large classroom, expanded computer and sewing rooms, a meeting room and communal gathering space, as well as an office for two job development coordinators. The project is on course for completion in August 2019.

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