It’s about 7:30 in the morning on a chilly Friday in November.
A handful of women and children are waiting outside Wellspring Women’s Center in Oak Park for the doors to open.
Precisely at 7:30 the door is unlocked and the smiling face of 91-year-old volunteer Pat Trippet welcomes each guest with a warm “Good morning,” and a hug for any that would like one.
Women of all ages and ethnicities make their way to their usual tables to meet and greet their friends, while children scamper about as they wait for the Children’s Corner to open. Later that morning, a volunteer chiropractor will make his services available, social workers will offer counseling, and the Craft Club will meet.
Back in the kitchen, the usual Friday morning Wellspring volunteers are busy preparing breakfast burritos, while volunteers from Jesuit High School in Carmichael serve every guest with a smile. Volunteers and staff work in the back room (aka. “The Hub”) working on sorting donations of hygiene items and diapers. And Executive Director Sister Judy Illig, IBVM makes her rounds, greeting every single guest at Wellspring by name.
Welcome to a typical morning at Wellspring Women’s Center – a nonprofit whose mission, according to Sister Illig, is “to nurture the innate goodness and personal self-esteem of women and their children” under the theme of “providing hospitality with dignity and love.”
All are welcome
It was that sense of hospitality that first attracted Sister Illig to become involved with Wellspring, first as a Board member and now for six years as executive director. “Anyone is welcome (at Wellspring) – there are no restrictions on what women and what children can come, there are no criteria that have to be met in order to be a guest,” she said. “I love the fact that we refer to everyone as our guest.”
That ideal of guests and hospitality has been the cornerstone of Wellspring from the very beginning when the concept was first created by co-founders Sisters Catherine Connell and Claire Graham, both members of the Sisters of Social Service, around 1983. Sister Connell said the concept for Wellspring came during one of their evening walks after work when both she and Sister Graham were approached in downtown Sacramento by a woman in need.
“A woman came up and nudged me on my arm and said, ‘Got any money for food?’” Sister Connell recalled. “It was real clear, I could smell the alcohol on her and I thought, ‘Oh dear, here this poor soul wants money for more alcohol.’”
The Sisters took the woman to a fast food restaurant in the area where they treated her to a meal.
“When we left and we were walking down the street, I turned to Sister Claire and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if someday we could offer something more than just food and good-bye in the night?’” Sister Connell said.
Four years later, after leaving her current employment, Sister Connell called up Sister Graham and said it was time to make their dream a reality. With help from a friends and the local parish community, Wellspring Women’s Center was born. The Center spent its first two years as a program of the Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services, then became a separate agency.
After two locations on Broadway, Wellspring found its current home in 1995 in the old Oak Park Firehouse.
At the Oak Park Firehouse, Wellspring is concentrating on its main programs, the first of which is a Nutritious Meal Program. From 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., any woman and/or child can come in for a free hot breakfast. Wellspring averages about 200 women and children a day coming through its doors.
However, the unique thing about Wellspring is the support the guests receive in addition to their meal.
“I always think about what would happen if Wellspring wasn’t there – where would those people go to get a nutritious meal and sometimes more importantly the support that they’re given – the emotional support if they’re going through a hard time,” said Andy Thielen, an East Sacramento resident and Wellspring Board member for the past five years. “They’re in a safe place for that morning from 7:30 to 11:30. They get a warm meal and are able to have a conversation with someone and discuss their problems with other people that may have similar problems. (It’s) an escape for them.”
Women like Elly (not her real name) and Beth (not her real name), call the Wellspring table they share each morning “sacred.” Elly has been a guest of Wellspring every morning for 11 years, and she refers to Wellspring as a place of spiritual healing and love.
“It’s for women who are in pain, women that are hungry – your soul is healed here,” Elly said. “You are welcome here – all the staff welcomes you like you are a family. I don’t know what I would do without it.”
For Beth, Wellspring gave her a sense of belonging after her children grew up and left.
“For the first time I was very lonely and I wanted to find some place to come,” Beth said. “(I am) so thankful to the volunteers. Everyone is wonderful and they really care for us.”
Beth was also able to receive counseling she needed, as well as assistance in finding employment.
The women that come to Wellspring come from all different ethnicities and all different situations in life. Some are unemployed. Some are homeless. Some have mental health issues. Some are in or have escaped abusive relationships. Some are battling substance abuse.
To help the women through their problems, Wellspring offers a Women’s Wellness Program that offers counseling, case management, resource referrals, wellness activities and workshops – all free of charge.
Wellspring currently has one social worker on staff and three social work interns, so there are two-to-three social workers for guests to speak with each day. And workshops and activities run the gamut from parenting classes to poetry writing to exercise classes, which are all related to helping the women that come to Wellspring build their sense of self-esteem and dignity, according to Sister Illig.
Many of the women that come to Wellspring find support from their peers as well.
“A lot of times you’ll walk around the tables and you’ll hear someone say ‘This is what’s happening with me right now and I know you went through this last year, how did you do it, what did you do?’” Sister Illig said. “They really are very good about helping each other. There’s a real sense of trust there and the guests feel safe. It’s wonderful to be in that kind of family environment.”
While the women receive the support they need, their children can have fun in another Wellspring program, the Children’s Corner, full of books, games and toys.
“The real emphasis (in the Children’s Corner) now is on socialization skills, just fundamental learning skills,” Sister Illig said. “They do a lot with just the kids working together, sharing.”
During October, 106 different children came to the Center, with an average of 17 a day between the ages of 18 months and 8 years.
The Children’s Corner has its own special activities. For example, Land Park resident and Wellspring Board member Patti Martinez told a children’s author she knew about Wellspring. The author wanted to come to speak to the children.
“She brought some of the books that she wrote for Chinese New Year,” Martinez said. “She did a reading to all the kids and brought some tastes of Chinese food that they would all share if it was Chinese New Year.”
To further help support both the women and children that come to Wellspring, the Center offers its Safety Net Services, which includes occasional assistance with transportation, education and health services. Through this program, Wellspring accepts and distributes donations of diapers and hygiene items.
“One of the Wellspring employees said it best I think – Wellspring is the safety net below the safety net for the people that fall through the cracks,” Thielen said. “There are various programs out there to help people that fall on hard times, but sometimes that’s not enough. So we’re there to provide a welcoming environment and offer the food and support that these women and children that are going through tough times (need), especially for those that don’t have anywhere else to go. They may get assistance from other government agencies, but sometimes that’s not enough to really fulfill what they need, especially emotionally. I think that’s a lot of it – women and children may be able to get food in other places, but a lot of Wellspring’s benefits go to the women emotionally that they get the support they need and a place to relax during their tough time.”
Volunteers help to stretch dollars at Wellspring Women’s Center, in addition to the many tasks they perform.
“We would not exist if it weren’t for the volunteers,” Sister Illig said. “Their energy and commitment is just unbelievable.”
Volunteering is easy.
“Anybody can volunteer, anybody can help, anybody can contribute, and it’s amazing what a difference it makes in these ladies’ lives,” Martinez said.
Now in its 25th year, Wellspring is looking towards the future.
“Our goal right now is to make Wellspring a household name so that when people hear something about Wellspring it would be like hearing about the Red Cross or United Way, where most people have recognition of that name,” Thielen said. “I think in the next couple of years things will really take off for Wellspring – it has gotten better each year and despite the economy, Wellspring does continue to raise the funds needed to support our programs.”
Another future goal for Wellspring is to pay off the current mortgage for the Firehouse, Martinez said.
“We’re going to try to have a pay off the mortgage major fundraiser this year to see if we can get the building paid off,” Martinez said. “If we didn’t have the mortgage on the building, that would be a considerable help to us.”
Wellspring also plans to make sure it can continue to offer the services it offers now.
“Maybe build up just the whole area of the counseling and case management kinds of things, to keep that program going (and maybe expand that part of it,” Sister Illig said. “Keep our meal as nutritious as possible – we really try to focus on that. And really helping women to believe in themselves – we really want to keep doing that.”
For more information on volunteering or making a donation to Wellspring Women’s Center call (916) 454-9688 or visit www.wellspringwomen.org.
Editor’s note: Some names in this article are changed to protect the privacy of the guests of Wellspring Women’s Center.