Finding refuge in north Flint: This sanctuary for women is building futures by mending spirits

FLINT, Michigan— Men and women walk the halls. Some are looking for the food giveaway. Some are volunteers carefully rolling carts with donations from one end of the building to the other. In a classroom, a group of women sit in a circle. 

Among them is Yolanda Hull, 49. With hands folded and eyes steady with attention, Hull is honed in on the material. She wears a gentle grin of contentment. Here, she is safe. Here, she is among friends that in the last 18 months she has come to consider family. 

St. Luke N.E.W. Life center feels like a world unto its own. A packed campus, it offers resources for those looking to make a life change or to reclaim the life they have. For Hull, it offers education, employment training, and emotional support. 

"We were just talking about like how we feel, how we can forgive people,” she says.

The N.E.W. in St. Luke’s N.E.W. Life Center stands for North End Women. It’s where you will find women with children and women without. Women abused. Women with dreams of becoming a seamstress, having a newborn son, owning their own Chevy Malibu, or continuing to have the strength to show up for themselves day after day. 

A part of Faith in Flint, an initiative by the Lansing Catholic Diocese as a call to action to help Flint’s most vulnerable populations St. Luke is located along Lawndale Avenue on the outskirts of Flint’s Civic Park neighborhood. The walls are covered with pictures, decorations, and certificates — all highlighting its success, its unique commitment to women, and its dedication to community.  

Although Hull is 7 months into a high-risk pregnancy, she continues coming to class every week. Technically, she graduated from St. Luke’s employment prep in May, but has returned for another session. Not quite ready to enter the workforce, here she is a mentor and a student, learning skills that go deeper than earning a GED and an occupation. 

Here, she is healing. 

Over the years, St. Luke N.E.W. Life Center has integrated more programs suited to helping men on Flint’s northside, but it continues to specialize in helping vulnerable women — specifically those who live in the “throw away zone,” a term coined by many at the center, said Sister Carol director of St. Luke's N.E.W. Life Center. They use it to describe the impoverished areas of Flint’s north and east sides and beyond the city limits into Beecher. They see their neighborhoods as a place where the scarcity of police, jobs and resources is glaring. 

But where St. Luke’s offers a different path to those who found themselves stuck between the flux of violence and unemployment or in relationships in which protection and abuse are indistinguishable. 

It’s a region that St. Luke’s founders, Sister Carol Weber and Sister Judy Blake, came to in 2000, walking the streets of north Flint determined to give clothing to the homeless. They acquired their current building, a former elementary school, at 3115 Lawndale Avenue in 2002 from St. Luke’s Catholic Church. The church located next door closed in 2008, but the N.E.W. Life Center continued.  

St. Luke’s has grown over the years to offer weekly food giveaways as well as 16-week employment preparation programs that funnel graduates into lawn care, sewing, and other trade jobs through partnerships with Landaal Packaging Systems, North Gate, and Peckham Inc., an apparel manufacturer based in Lansing — as well as the original clothing distributions. 

The building’s classrooms now house adult literacy courses, computer labs, sewing machines, and donation rooms. People line the hallways waiting for food drive to begin, and the bathroom mirrors hang dotted with abuse hotline numbers. 

Both Sister Carol and Sister Judy loop through the building endlessly, giving tours to future volunteers, teaching classes, or lending their ear to the pain many women they serve bring with them when they arrive. 

“We had started an employment prep for women because we felt if they could at least get a job then they could get out of their abusive situations,” said Sister Carol. But she found without the necessary emotional support, the same women that soared in employment prep classes were unable to sustain hired positions. 

Every Tuesday and Wednesday, in addition to employment prep, all women are encouraged to partake in the N.E.W. Life program — a supplemental support class solely focused on women’s emotional health. Participants are encouraged to learn the meaning of their names, devote time to personal creative projects, read uplifting literature, learn about healthy eating, and tell their story. 

“By me being raped when I was 12, I finally just opened up to tell somebody because I had (held) it in for so long," said Hull. “It was hurting my heart≤ because I was stressed about it."

As a mentor, she looks forward to sitting down with other women with stories like hers and she is happy to continue telling her own. Women that choose to enter the program are encouraged to see counselors and read “40 Day Lovefest,” a Christian book that focuses on strategies for developing self-love and forgiveness.

It’s all part of the journey, as Hull describes it, a journey toward a brighter future.

As for her, Hull is looking forward to the fall when she will meet her baby boy and attend St. Luke's annual September baby shower. It’s a chance for new moms to learn about parenting, nutrition, and breastfeeding while also stocking up on some essentials. 

It will be her first and only baby shower. Until then, she is continuing work to complete her GED and her employment preparation classes to become a seamstress after the baby is born. 

"I feel good about myself now," Hull says. 

St. Luke N.E.W. Life Center is open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. For more information or to volunteer, visit the St. Luke N.E.W. Life Center’s website at http://www.stlukenewlife.com/staff or call at (810)-239-8710. 
 

Read more articles by Alexandria Brown.

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