The old convent in the ominous shadow of the abandoned Bonaventure Church could have easily fallen into disrepair. But Rev. Mildred Kee and a host of volunteers transformed the building into a place where women could transform their lives.
Kee opened Women of Excellence Inc., a permanent housing facility for women recovering from mental illness and substance abuse in the old convent at 2848-50 N. Ninth St.
Sylvia Tinsley, Kee’s niece, has been the organization’s administrative assistant for 10 months. “Women come here from all different walks life,” Tinsley said. “It’s permanent, single room housing, so it’s an adjustment from a shelter. You can see a change in them with their development.”
Helena Lewis, 47, a Women of Excellence resident who was homeless for six years, said she enjoys the single rooms. “I like that I’m not sharing a room with anybody,” Lewis said. “There were sometimes up to six people in a room at other shelters.”
Although the facility does not provide on-site care, the volunteers help rehabilitate the women with continual moral support and off-site educational and rehabilitation programs.
Lee Perkins, the senior resident adviser and cook, underscored the organization’s goal. “When the women come in, our goal is to help them further develop whatever is necessary that they need,” Perkins said. “One girl got married, some found independent housing, others moved on to school. But it’s a challenge. Some you can help, some you can’t.”
Although it may be a challenge, the volunteers work to assure that women achieve their goals. Donna Long, the case manager, forged partnerships with other organizations to offer educational and volunteer activities for the women. During the day, the women create their own schedules: some women attend GED classes while others partake in mental health and rehab programs. “Some work at the CHANGE program at 17th and Lehigh as volunteers,” Long said. “It’s about encouraging them, pushing them so they don’t end up back in the system.”
Helena Lewis’ ultimate goal is to live on her own, and the organization is helping her achieve that goal. “They’re helping me find out through other agencies what housing is available,” Lewis said. Lewis also goes to the program on 17th and Lehigh, where she attends mental health rehabilitation, career building workshops and art classes.
“When the women walked in the door they had no motivation,” Long said. “Now they get dressed, get out of here, and they come back and tell me how happy they are that they’re involved.”