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Women Helping Women: Support Programs are a Lifeline During the Pandemic

MIA & CDJ CCCS
Women of Proyecto Mujeres Inteligentes en Accion meet (pre-pandemic) // Photo: Catholic Charities Community Services

Westchester may not be an area equated with need. Despite the large homes, desirable schools, and general affluence of the county, there are still a great deal of families needing assistance. Particularly in the immigrant populations. Particularly during the pandemic.

By Richard Bertin

Catholic Charities Community Services assists mothers in need through a variety of direct and referral services, however there are unique programs deserving special recognition in the month of May -- our women’s groups. Proyecto Mujeres Inteligentes en Accion and Comunidad Juan Diego work to create safe spaces for women, many of whom are single mothers. These two programs bond and empower women through shared experiences.

Proyecto Mujeres Inteligentes en Accion

Proyecto Mujeres Inteligentes en Accion (MIA) operates out of our Brewster office in Putnam County and Northern Westchester and was founded in 2017 under the stewardship of Mariana Duenas, Senior Case Manager of Catholic Charities Community Services Westchester & Putnam County. It has grown organically into an important lifeline for many women in the region. For many, Westchester may not be an area equated with need. Despite the large homes, desirable schools, and general affluence of the county, there are still a great deal of families needing assistance -- particularly in the immigrant populations. Catholic Charities New York is there to provide that assistance.

With many years of experience organizing women’s groups in the rural areas of Dutchess County, Mariana identified the lack of sororal support for women in Brewster. She launched MIA in hopes of giving women a forum to connect with others and to learn how to become advocates. A full curriculum of monthly topics largely focused on holistic health and social resources for its members. What makes MIA standout from other community groups is how close-knit the group has become, growing from 35 members to well over 100 members.

Rosangela, Northern Westchester resident, said of the program, “I took the tools that Proyecto MIA gave me, and shared and practiced what I learned in my own family life and my immediate community. It helped me to better understand my new culture and find my place within ‘The Dream’. Thank you, MIA, for being present and supportive in our lives”

MIA meets monthly, but the members of the group remain in regular contact with each other outside of meetings. Each member is committed and eager to share with other members helpful information and to promote a healthy sisterhood needed for a population that can easily become isolated. This is especially the case in areas where anxiety over immigration policies remain an active part of life.

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the women of MIA transitioned to virtual meetings, sharing resources and providing advice navigating the pandemic. For those with children, the connection to others especially lends a sense of community, allowing women to discuss childcare and education issues in the new and ever-changing normal.

Comunidad Juan Diego

Comunidad Juan Diego (CDJ) is another Catholic Charities Community Services women’s group that originally started as a coffee hour shared by mothers of children from Our Lady Queen of Angels Middle school and eventually developed into a formal support group. Nancy Cabrera, a social worker with Community Services Outreach, is an instrumental part of the program’s development and a leader growing the program for the women.

CDJ meets weekly, and similar to MIA, has a formal agenda of topics discussed at each meeting. Before Covid-19 transitioned everyone to a virtual setting, the Marist Brothers and the school provided meeting space for the women. The program focuses on topics such as mental health, nutrition, and resource sharing. Participants regularly worked together on a variety of handmade goods, bringing various skills and talents to create one-of-a-kind items that eventually made their way to retail. The program also includes special guest speakers to motivate and inspire the women.

 “I no longer see these women as just a group. I see them as family. These are my sisters now” says Nancy Cabrera.

The struggles of motherhood in immigrant communities are often difficult experiences. Many mothers struggle with these challenges privately and rarely discuss them openly for fear of the perception of inadequacy. The physical and psychological demands of raising a family are high. Problems often become amplified when factoring in issues of economics, food insecurity, heath care, housing, and language challenges.

Catholic Charities programs such as MIA and CDJ play a crucial role in bringing women together. These forums allow women to have candid discussions by removing negative stigma resulting from the disclosure of private experiences. Despite the challenges and barriers these women face, they continue to make important contributions in the support of others and to society. Finding commonalities in trusting and supportive environments creates hope and provides help now and in the future.