On rare occasions, Cheryl Sesnon, executive director of Jubilee Women’s Center, hears a tale of adversity and tragedy from one of her residents so overwhelming that she that quietly closes the door to her office and cries. Sesnon has heard many such stories during her years of working in social services and she’s developed a tough skin. Yet, the grace and strength the women of Jubilee show in the face of hardship can also reduce her to tears.
Most of the time Cheryl seems full of hope, wisdom and strength. It takes that and more for her to balance needs at Jubilee. The Capitol Hill women’s center supports adult women (average age 52) who are low-income, homeless, have experienced trauma – often due to domestic violence – and who need a hand with health, financial and job readiness issues.
Jubilee helps 34 women residents at a time, housing them both in the building, a former convent, and in a spacious dwelling next door. These women stay in the community until, as Sesnon says, “Their life is in a good place and they’re ready for independent housing.”
Helping Sesnon give me a tour was Sherrill, a Jubilee resident, who walked me through the ground floor with offices for case workers, a sunny kitchen and dining room, its peaceful outdoor garden and its many communal facilities. Not least among the amenities are a well-equipped classroom, small computer room, laundry facilities and a clothing boutique, stocked by donations and managed by volunteers.
Sherrill, a mom with grown children, tells us she’s has had breast cancer twice, became homeless and needed help getting on her feet financially. She says that, when she came to Jubilee, she was recovering from cancer therapy that left her hands raw and bleeding. Sherrill is now in remission, interviewing for jobs and enjoys spending time with her children and grandchildren.
What was especially important to her was being able to rebuild her credit history. But there were other good things as well. She appreciates the storage room where those living at Jubilee can stash belonging. Sherrill says, “When you lose your housing, where do you put your things? I had my kids’ kindergarten pictures. I was lucky to meet a lady who let me store stuff on her back porch during the two months when I was homeless.”
Sesnon explains how Jubilee, no longer a church facility although originally started by activist nuns, relies heavily on grants, volunteers and contributions to accomplish its work. The only operating support the 5013C nonprofit receives from the city has been assistance from the city’s Internet Technology Department and a grant from the Department of Neighborhoods to cover designation as an emergency center. Residents pay a third of their incomes in rent to Jubilee – typically around $50 – not a lot, but an amount that gives them a stake and establishes rental history. The Center is even able to help others, opening classes to newcomers, immigrants and low-income women in the community and sharing the clothing boutique with shelters such as Mary’s Place.
Help sometimes is unexpected, as when nearby St. Joseph’s School gave Jubilee a “toilet paper mountain.” Sesnon says, “They made a mountain out of donated tissues. The students lined up and handed rolls — one to another — up the block. We stored it in the attic and, surprisingly, we could sure use another. Women use a lot of toilet tissue.”
Designed to be a short-term housing center, Jubilee seems a joyous place, one where women volunteers often help with the cooking and sit down for communal meals with a greeting of “Hi, sister.”
Sesnon pauses to remark on Sherrill’s ability to stay strong in the face of multiple health and financial challenges. But Sherrill is matter-of-fact, what she says is, “when strong is all you got, strong you gotta be.” It could well be the Jubilee motto.