The Next Page: Franciscan sisters are changing hearts, changing minds
Service program open eyes of volunteers and of those helped, says Mark Kenny
August 30, 2015 12:00 AM
The 2014-2015 volunteers, clockwise from top left, were Ryan Holmes, Rochelle Lentz, Sam Pashel, Dan Green, Tracy Medrano Gonzalez and Mikey Villavicencio. Not pictured is Luke Merry.
Change A Heart founder Sister Donna Stephenson, program director Pat Moran and Michelle Basista, one of the program’s first volunteers.
The statue of the order’s patron, St. Francis, on the convent grounds in Millvale.
By Mark Kenny
For Michelle Basista, a charter member in 1999 of the Millvale-based Change A Heart Franciscan Volunteer Program, the aha moment of her 11-month commitment to serving others came when a homeless man she was taking to see a doctor told her with shame in his eyes, “You have to carry my leg.”
“I hesitated — I would like to think for not very long — because I didn’t want to do it,” she recalled. “He was an amputee, about halfway up his thigh. He had lost a lot of weight, and the prosthesis didn’t fit him anymore. He ambulated with crutches. The leg was dirty, and it smelled bad, and it was big. I couldn’t carry it with just one hand or even both hands. I had to embrace the leg.”
It was that moment when something magical began to happen for the young, well-educated, middle-class woman helping the older gentleman, who had a long history of drug and alcohol problems.
“I’m sitting next to this guy and we’re talking. Talking became laughing and joking, and we just got to know each other, and I no longer hesitated. I no longer saw the differences. I just saw that we were the same. We were both children of God.”
Every August since, recent college graduates have come to Pittsburgh for their own yearlong journeys of faith-based discovery. In all, the program has attracted 84 volunteers — from 21 states, plus Germany and Kenya — and that counts the three newest volunteers who arrived in Beechview last week.
They live here simply, in the spirit of St. Francis, their patron. Each serves through one of 38 partner agencies involved in health, education or social services.
At first, Ms. Basista said, the volunteers plan to change their clients’ lives. “But we come to realize that it’s our own hearts that change.”
Attracting young people
Change has been a persistent theme in the life of Tracy Medrano Gonzalez, 22, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in the Dominican Republic whose resume of academic excellence, research and leadership reads like that of a driven professional at the height of her career.
During her recently completed year of service, Ms. Medrano Gonzalez served as case manager and coordinator of volunteers and after-school programs for Casa San Jose, a Catholic outreach in Brookline dedicated to connecting the city’s growing immigrant Latino community with services and resources. Every other Monday, she and fellow volunteers also worked with a homeless outreach program Downtown.
“I worked up to 60 hours a week if there was a special event. There was always something to do,” said the New York City transplant who came to America with her father when she was 9.
Rosa Cos' family is among those who benefited from Ms. Medrano Gonzalez’s service. Ms. Cos, from Guatemala, has four children.
“Tracy spent time with my children and loved them. She taught my children how important it is for them to not only learn English but to keep up with their Spanish. I am grateful to Tracy, and I am happy that my children had the additional support and help that they would not otherwise have had,” she said through a translator.
Ms. Medrano Gonzalez’s work with children at Casa San Jose, particularly unaccompanied minors, helped to determine her newest goal, pursuing a master’s degree in applied developmental psychology at the University of Pittsburgh.
“I want to focus on trauma,” she said. “A lot of these kids are running away from violence. They have the violence where they come from, and there’s something I refer to as the trauma of migration — the trauma of having to walk thousands of miles, being abused, and then they come here and there’s the trauma of discrimination, of racism, of lack of resources. And this is, for example, a 10-year-old child. How do we help them? Is going to therapy enough? What are the things environmentally — in the home and in centers — that we can develop to really help these kids?”
Such epiphanies are common among Change A Heart volunteers, many of whom end up staying here.
“They’re very smart, bright. They’re the hope of our country,” said Change A Heart director Pat Moran.
A legacy of service
Next month, the Sisters of St. Francis will mark the 150th anniversary of their order’s arrival in Pittsburgh..
Faced with an aging membership and fewer women entering religious life, the sisters established Change A Heart to perpetuate their ministry of service.
“How could we connect with young people and have an impact, hopefully, on their lives — not to get vocations necessarily, but just to be able to share our Franciscan spirit?”
That was the question posed by Sister Donna Stephenson, who founded Change A Heart based on her experience years ago serving homeless women and children via a similar Jesuit organization in New Jersey.
Change A Heart volunteers commit to living humbly and together in sparsely furnished homes rented by the program. Each person receives a stipend of $90 a month for personal expenses. They share a monthly allowance for groceries and receive health care insurance.
They are encouraged to use public transportation because “it brings them face to face with the people on the margins of society that maybe they have walked by before,” said Sister Donna. “But they come to realize they are no different than the people they serve.”
Though Change A Heart is a faith-based program, neither Catholicism nor even devout Christianity are prerequisites for joining, Ms. Moran said, citing the spiritual journey of one recent nondenominational volunteer.
“He doesn’t even know what he is, but he does believe in a greater power, so his curiosity has allowed him to grow and develop his own sense of spirituality,” she said.
During meals and prayers, he often was “ the one watching and listening, but his openness to learn has been beautiful to see,” she said.
At the end of each service year, the group gathers at Mount Alvernia, the sisters’ motherhouse in Millvale, for a sending-forth ceremony. That sometimes means starting new jobs — as full-time employees of the organizations for which they volunteered.
“They each speak of how the program has touched their lives, and I usually end up in tears,” said Sister Donna. “It’s just profound how you see them change.”
Mark Kenny (email@example.com) is a freelance writer from Ross.
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
firstname.lastname@example.org and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.