Compassionate care for the region’s most vulnerable people.
by Barbara Eastman
Spring has arrived in Northwest Indiana and, overall, it was a pretty mild winter. However, if you found yourself homeless during a lake-effect snow storm, you might have a different opinion. The sad reality is that there are many homeless women and children in our region. There may be issues like addiction, alcoholism, or mental illness contributing to a person’s circumstances, but often a person can find herself homeless through no fault of her own. The loss of a job, for example, can mean that she simply can’t pay her rent.
At Sojourner Truth House in Gary, Sister Peg Spindler, CSA, her dedicated staff, and a battalion of generous volunteers are making a difference in the lives of many of society’s most vulnerable women and children.
When Peg Spindler was growing up in Cedar Lake, she began to think she might have a vocation. When she graduated from Andrean High School, she decided that the only way she would know for sure was to try religious life. At 18 she left her parents and four younger siblings and joined an order in Harrisburg, Penn. She went on to take her final vows and was sent to Gary (where she was born) to teach 8th graders at Holy Trinity School.
She taught for 15 years and was deeply saddened when the school closed. Not long afterwards, Peg lost her father who was preceded in death two years earlier by her mother. Peg petitioned for a sabbatical so that she could deal with her grief and take stock of her life. During this period she returned to school and earned a second master’s degree in Pastoral Studies. As part of her course work she returned to Gary to interview Father Bob Gehring at St. Mark’s. That interview proved to be pivotal for it was there that she met Sister Joan Fisher, a highly energetic member of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ who was in Gary on behalf of her order, assessing the needs of the community. In the meantime, Sister Peg transferred her vows to the Sisters of Saint Agnes.
Sister Joan concluded that there was an urgent need to serve homeless women and their children and she described her vision to Peg, who knew immediately that she wanted to be a part of the ministry that became Sojourner Truth House (STH), named for the former slave and women’s rights activist. Peg felt that she was called to a life of social activism and service to the homeless who were often further compromised by drug and alcohol addiction, a lack of education and skills, and domestic and sexual abuse. Although she was not a member of their order, The Poor Handmaids welcomed Sister Peg and she and Sister Joan, with the support of the Poor Handmaids, donations from organizations and individuals, and the tireless efforts of volunteers, opened the doors to STH in November 1997. When Sister Joan had to leave STH to care for her elderly mother, Sister Peg found herself the director of the ministry. She recalls, “Here I was, a former 8th-grade teacher, suddenly in charge of a program that would soon be serving more than 2,000 clients a month.”
The services STH provides fall into three basic categories, the first of which is homeless women and children. Women may take a variety of classes with support for recovery, parenting, and basic life skills. While the mothers are in class, children participate in educational and recreational activities which are supervised by staff and volunteers. Once STH has been able to secure safe housing for clients, they are invited to participate in the second pillar of service, a program called TOPPS (Transitional Outreach Program Participants), which helps prepare them for independent living. The third service stream is the food pantry and clothes closet. STH currently serves approximately 2,100 clients per month.
What began as a small outreach program serving homeless women and children has grown tremendously over the past 18 years, which attests to the needs of the community where homelessness, addiction, domestic abuse, extreme economic need, and other factors are rampant. Sister Peg, her staff, volunteers, and supporters of Sojourner Truth House are making a difference in Northwest Indiana.