Connections: For some time now, I’ve been hearing of a very successful program you developed for women who have been incarcerated. I understand that when the Department of Corrections became aware of its efficacy, they funded it. But before we get into the nature of this program, we need to get to know you better. This “program” is really an expression of who you are. Its success is rooted not only in the principles and strategies you developed but perhaps more so in the relationships you were able to establish with these women. Without a clear picture of your compassionate nature, we will not see and understand the program, so help me introduce you to our readers. Tell us about the Order to which you belong and your pastoral training and experiences.
Sister Augusta: I began my journey with the Sisters of Mercy in 1951, entering the Community of the Sisters of Mercy in Detroit. After four years of study and training, I earned my Bachelor of Science Degree from Mercy College of Detroit. I went on to teach for 13 years, during which time I continued my studies and received a Master of Arts Degree in teaching from Eastern Michigan University. I then embarked on a new Ministry of Pastoral Care.
In 1977, my next Ministry was coordinator of Office of Aging for the Archdiocese of Detroit. While there I completed a certification in Gerontology from the University of Michigan. After that, I held a similar position in the Gaylord Diocese where I completed my Masters in Public Administration and certification in Pastoral Studies from Loyola Institute for Ministry, New Orleans, LA. In 1985, I began working for Antrim Kalkaska Community Mental Health and completed my Masters in Social Work from Western Michigan University.
Connections: Wow! That’s a lot of studying! But that only partially explains the Sister Augusta we know. Wisdom includes more than knowledge. Tell us about your working with people.
Sister Augusta: Well, after I attended Mercy College and got a BS degree, I was sent to teach. I had never taught in my life. We had to go to our Mother Provincial and she assigned us. She said, “I think you’d do well in education.” I said, “Oh, I’ll try it.” So I was sent to Bay City. I was there for five years and taught 1st grade. The first year I had 62 students, so it didn’t take me long to get around and find out what I really had to do. It just came natural, how to handle the class, how to work with the students. I always feel when you’re talking with somebody you have to understand and be very personal with that person. You have to make a connection with them. Those little kids, they really loved me and I still get notes and letters from some of their parents.
Connections: Where do you think you acquired that ability to connect with people?
Sister Augusta: I think I really picked it up from my parents, because my father was always involved in a lot of social gatherings, especially through the church; and then he was in the Union where he learned how to give of himself to other people. My mother was a nurse on the maternity floor, and she had a wonderful way with people, people loved her. She was there for many years. She had family after family after family, generation after generation and they all remembered her. When she had her 90th birthday some of these people showed up. That to me was a miracle in itself. How many people are going to remember you at 90 years old and show up to express their appreciation?
But I can remember, I must have been around 12 years old, I had an aunt, Emily Stratz, who was a public health nurse in Detroit. Once in a while we would go to places with her, and I always remembered that these people looked so depressed, like there was no life there. My question was, “Why is it? Why is it they feel so depressed?” They didn’t seem joyful or anything. So my question from then on was, “What causes this?” So all my life I’ve been searching for why it is that people sometimes aren’t really satisfied with life and find it really difficult.
Connections: So along the way, one of the choices you made was to get a MSW. Tell us about that.
Sister Augusta: I had worked for CMH for 19 years. By 1993 I could see the changes that were going to come because they were asking different questions, administratively. I was also aware that they were going to go into Care Management. The questions became more about money than people, and I thought, “This is the time for me to look at another direction, but still use the experience and the education I have.” I was working full time but attended WMU in Grand Rapids and obtained my Master’s Degree in social work. I liked their program because it was more clinically based. And in 1993 I just retired – I resigned from the Agency.
Connections: And then what happened?
Sister Augusta: I took 6 months and studied what the possibilities were and how to go about doing this. I took an hour every day and did a meditation on how I could use all of my knowledge and experiences within the community. At the end of the six months, the name came to me. I’ll use “Health and Healing Ministries.” I still have it.
Connections: Tell us about the work of Health & Healing Ministries.
Sister Augusta: We had some nurses working for us who volunteered their time doing blood pressures at the church, at the Senior Center and at some of the apartment complexes . We had a large number of people who came and a lot of them were sent to the emergency room because their blood pressures were high. And then I also had clients coming. We put on a lot of programs like yoga, working with dreams, grief and loss. And we had one for parents. We wanted to help them understand what it meant to be a parent and how to treat the children. We helped them understand that they had to know themselves before they could really treat their children well. It was very successful.
Connections: I’m interested in how you’ve navigated your connections with the parish.
Sister Augusta: Well the reason that I incorporated in 2000 was that the priest was feeling that since I was a religious person that I really shouldn’t be outside the church. I said, “Well, I understand how you feel, but right now if we’re going to be successful we have to have continuity in what we’re doing.” I said, “You might be gone next year, and then where would I be? I thank the Lord every day that I incorporated, because there’ve been four priests there since I opened. I would have never survived.
Connections: And how would that have affected your ability to attract people who come to you for services?
Sister Augusta: Well, this gets back to relationships, doesn’t it?
Connections: It certainly does.
Sister Augusta: So once I looked at it, I took people from the parish to be on the Board so they were my ambassadors back to the parish and I could work independently. It became a good thing, doing my ministry with counseling, and the counseling began to really grow.
Connections: So you said “retire”, are you retired?
Sister Augusta: Well, in the Order anyone that is 65 is retired. (smiling)
Connections: Oh…. (chuckling)
Sister Augusta: But that doesn’t mean we are, does it.
Connections: Right! (laughter) So how did you come to develop a program for incarcerated women?
Sister Augusta: I had some clients who had been in prison, or in jail, and they had to go before the Judge. They would write letters saying they were getting counseling from me. The Judge took note of that, and she said, “Would you mind taking some of my other clients that are on parole?” I said, “Sure, I’d be glad to do that.” “Well”, she said, “that would be wonderful because these other people that come in think that you’re just wonderful. They think they’ve really grown and feel that you have something to give them.” So I said, “I’d be very happy to do that.” Somehow she got together with the sheriff and so the sheriff said, “Well, you know your name is kind of getting circulated through the courts. What would you think about coming over and doing some work here in the jail?”
Connections: So tell us about the program.
Sister Augusta: I called it an ‘Enrichment Program.’ It utilizes a holistic approach with the individual being at the center of a needs based curriculum. A unique aspect of this program is that it is accessible to their friends and relatives as well as themselves when they are released back into the community. It incorporates many insights from other programs (practices), including parenting, (12 sessions), and prison re-entry programming. One of the benefits of this modular design is that individuals who complete 12 sessions are awarded 15 days off their sentences, and they may continue attending sessions.
Connections: Help us see more of what you do with these women.
Sister Augusta: I use a blended format, incorporating teaching, counseling, group participation and personal support. I believe every behavior has a reason and a cause, and affects the individual, family, friends and environment. So topics are presented to provide knowledge to the women about themselves and their behavior. Presentations address depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, the grieving process, listening skills, anger management, different temperaments, self-esteem, better understanding of oneself, the addicted personality, building trusting relationships, developmental stages of life and empowerment. I use books, like The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, and books concerning the Earth; not so much religious books, but books that have good psychological principles and good faith-based principles, like Legacy of the Heart by Wayne Muller and The Good Listener by James Sullivan I tell the girls that’s what we’re doing. We’re doing good psychological work and good faith-based work in whatever I bring you. So we can bring it all together, the science and theology and psychology.
Connections: Tell us more about the group process.
Sister Augusta: The group process has been very helpful. It provides a safe place for the women to interact with one another, form trusting relationships, to share their stories, sorrows, sadness, loneliness, isolation, tears and joy without being judged. They learn how to listen to each other and be respectful of diversity. At the beginning we stress that we are all teachers, we share out gifts, we are in it together. When they “get it”, they feel so much better about themselves.
The program encourages the women to share articles and insights they have learned with their family, parents and friends. We provide extra copies of materials and books used in the group, enabling them to relate with their family and friends on a new level. This builds support from family and friends.
The material provided helps to identify those individuals in need of Mental Health services. Over three-fourths of the women suffered from anxiety disorders and depression. Now, they are able to get help. Many stated that they knew at a very young age that something about them was not right. They didn’t ‘fit in.’ It is difficult to comprehend the suffering some of these women have endured from a very young age.
Connections: What kind of feedback do you receive?
Sister Augusta: Several women have reported they have gained insight and self-respect and realize they must make serious changes in order to avoid the situations that caused them to be incarcerated in the first place. These changes may include leaving their present family situations and breaking relationships with other family and friends. These are extremely hard decisions for them. Sometimes I would receive a comment like, “Thank you for believing in me.”
Connections: So how did the Department of Corrections get interested in this?
Sister Augusta: This was like the first two years. (working in the Kalkaska county jail) Some of these women went to other jails or prisons to serve another sentence. And when they would go to these places they would ask, “Do you have this program called Enrichment?” And the staff at prison would say, “No. we never heard of it.” So the girls would write me and say, “Would you continue to send me the information that you offer every week with the girls?” So I continued to send them work and after about six months the State called the sheriff and asked if they could come in and see my program. So they sent two people down for the evening program. We didn’t do anything different. They really liked it. They asked if I would write out more about what I’m doing so they could see it and then they paid for it.
Connections: It takes a special person with some special qualities.
Sister Augusta: Well, it seems like I’ve always had this ability to look at a person, not look at them in a judging way, so that I know who I’m working with. I’m not there to judge them, so I ask, what direction should I go with this person? Should I go very ‘psychologically’ with them, should I use those kinds of principles? Or do I just talk with them for a while and find out what’s really going on. I want to know. Then what I do at the end of the day, I sit down and I go over who I saw that day, and then I just give it over to the Lord.
Connections: You go over…?
Sister Augusta: I go over who I saw during the day, just in my mind. And then at night I just turn that all over to the Spirit, ‘cause I have this feeling, and I know that the Spirit is working in all of us. We don’t know how he works with us and none of us understand that, but he’s working with all of us, in his own way and in his own time. Until we get connected, ‘till we have that relationship with the Spirit things don’t always go right.
Connections: Have you had any successes in being able to turn around individuals who are destroying themselves with addictive behaviors?
Sister Augusta: Yes. I’ve had girls at the jail write back to me that they are now on a different path. Some of them probably had been in jail 3 or 4 times, even when I was there some of them would come back and before they left they’d say to me, “I’ve had enough of this life – I’ve got to make a change. And you’ve given me some tools to do that, and I am trying to get more connected to my spirit within my real self, not my false self.”
Connections: Obviously, the greatest tool you have is your “Real Self” Sister Augusta. The books are secondary tools you use to address issues with which they are struggling. Are there any that stand out?
Sister Augusta: I think that one of the classes that really helped them the most was on temperaments. I have this little book that I picked up one time called, Why You Act the Way You Do.” It has pictures of these temperaments that have little faces, with profiles on them. They read that and just gobble it up. I give them copies of this and say, “Now you can continue this discussion when you get back into your cell,” because the women are all in one cell so they can use some understanding of temperament when they’re living that close together. The other thing that really helps is that they discuss them with their families. It’s like they can’t get enough, they want more.
Connections: So they understand and learn to appreciate differences.
Sister Augusta: Well, I present it as ‘this is what the book says’, and I believe this, that we are born with a temperament, so it’s very important that you know what your temperament is and why you’re responding the way you are to different things. One of the girls spoke up and said, “You mean all this stuff I’m doing is because I have a temperament? I never knew I was born with anything like that.” So she really grasped this and worked it through with herself.
Connections: Do you point out that temperaments have strengths as well as weaknesses?
Sister Augusta: Yes. The book gives the strengths on one side and the weakness on the other and then goes on to explain that temperament affects everything you do. It goes through marriage, how you drive, how you walk, how you meet people, your relationship to God, everything. it all has to do with relationships.
Connections: It begins to change their perception of both themselves and others.
Sister Augusta: You mention perceptions. We talk a lot about perceptions. I had a client that was on probation through the Grand Rapids Federal Court. Parolees that come out of a federal prison into Antrim and Kalkaska County and are referred to our agency for mental health services, then I do some work with them.
She violated her parole by leaving the county with another girl. She drank, and then she went to the casino, and on the way back a fight broke out on a casino bus. She got overwhelmed and started swinging and things, and seemingly injured someone. Anyway she was taken to jail; they took the whole group down to jail. They kinda figured out what was going on there and they didn’t put her in jail, they brought her back. She had to go back for her sentencing. I had to let her probation officer know immediately what was going on here. She felt so shameful that she had done all this. She just knew that when the girl asked her that she shouldn’t have gone. I said, “Exactly. You didn’t listen to yourself talk. You know how important that is. So you’ve learned some lessons from this, right?” Life is all about lessons. “Yes”, she said, “I think I’ve learned that I have to listen to myself talk.” And I said, “That’s right.”
Connections: We keep playing tapes that we created.
Sister Augusta: Yes. She did come back when I said to her, “This is all in your mind. You haven’t talked to that woman. You don’t know if any of this is true.”
And that was such a lesson to me, to think that some of these people come in with all these stories playing in their minds. You want to be sure and check them out. So I always ask questions that encourage reflection. I never use direct kind of questions, more like “What is it? What is it?” I guess I’ve been asking that question since I was 12 years old.
Connections: Augusta continues telling stories that illuminate her amazing capacity for approaching people with compassion and mindfulness. Near the end of our chat she remarked: “It just takes a little time and a little effort. When people ask me, ‘What do you do?’ I say, ‘I just show up.’ That’s my motto, I just show up.” Finally, I ask if she has a parting word she would like to express.
Sister Augusta: Yes, I would like to express my deepest appreciation to the Sisters of Mercy, for support and encouragement given to continue daily to live out my call to “Sacredness” and the journey of invitation, “Come and See”, opportunities to observe and witness the wonderment of how God proclaims and manifests Himself to His people through mercy, compassion, joy and peace. Only in prayer and silence are we able to witness the Truth. I would like to extend a blessing to my family and the many persons who have touched my life in so many ways
“Today is the day the Lord has made, Let us rejoice and be glad.”
Sister Augusta had been a NASW member for over 25 years.
This interview is a reprint from the Michigan Association of Community Mental Health Boards publication, Connections – for Communities that Care Summer 2013 Issue. To access the issues of Connections, go to http://www.macmhb.org/Connections/ConnectionsPage.html