Build a Better World Writing Contest Winner

Barbara Roberts
Star Rating
Reviewer's Rating
Aug 17, 2017

The Readers Advisory Committee is pleased to announce that Barbara K. Roberts has won our Build a Better World essay contest. We enjoyed how "Sisters Building a Better World" sheds light on the amazing rehabilitative work being done at Kansas City's Journey House, a prison re-entry program run in large part by a group of area nuns.  Roberts's ability to capture the women of Journey House--both those who work there and those who come to stay--gives readers a vibrant example of the impact one can have when they try to build a better world.

Barbara Kietzer Roberts writing includes short story and flash pieces, several which have won awards from the Missouri Writers Guild, St. Louis Writers Guild, and the Kansas Authors Club. She is recently published in Well Versed (Columbia Writers Guild), for her short story Tempest, and three poems. Her debut novel, BIND, for which she is seeking representation, won first place in the Missouri Writers Guild, First Chapters-Mystery contest.

She is a board member for Whispering Prairie Press, which publishes Kansas City Voices. Additionally, she is a member of the Kansas City Writers Group, Writers Bloc, Missouri Writers Guild, and Kansas Authors Club.

In addition to her writing endeavors, Barbara has over twenty years of experience in nonprofit development, where her experience runs the gamut from grant writing, social and print media, capital campaign, and annual fund raising. She currently serves as the Mission Advancement Director for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in Kansas City. She earned a B.A. from the University of Missouri, and M.B.A. from Rockhurst University.

In her spare time, at the request of her college-aged son, she’s creating a cookbook of their family’s favorite recipes to pass along to her children and friends.

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Sisters Building a Better World

For the nuns living in Kansas City’s urban core, they build a better world not only by residing at Journey House with women who have recently been paroled from prison, but by being their family as well.

A roller coaster of activity surrounds Sister Martha Niemann from her peaceful perch in the living room at Journey House. She takes it all in, from a sister returning from the bus station with a new resident, to women off to their daily rehab meetings, job training, or preparing dinner, then later, group circle time. Residents stop by to share their ups and the downs, and to support each other. While other halfway homes have security cameras, on-site parole officers, and around-the-clock security, here it’s S. Martha—greeting, hugging, and listening to all—who helps provide the security these women want. She further fosters well-being by leading a 12-step program for these women and others in the community.

Fifteen women reside at Journey House for up to ninety days. Since its opening in September 2015, over 200 women have called it their home. The demand is so great, it’s booked six months out. Although it serves those most prone to re-incarceration—those with mental illness, addiction, and a history of going in and out of prison—less than five percent have returned to prison, a remarkable feat, considering the national recidivism rate is sixty-eight percent.

What makes Journey House so successful in building a better world? So successful that a former resident held her wedding reception at the home. To the sisters and women, the answer is simple—they are a family.

It was the vision of Georgia Walker, Executive Director at Journey to New Life (JTNL), to establish Journey House, with the aid of Sister Rose McLarney. S. Rose’s background in restorative justice for former inmates made her a natural choice to help launch this innovative program. Sisters Martha, Gabrielle Smits, and Patty Clune, all enthusiastically joined the call to serve their dear neighbor—their vocation for building a better world, by living and ministering with them. For the residents, most who never met a nun, “they didn’t know what to expect. And when they saw we were old sisters…,” S. Martha laughed.

For S. Rose, the value of the sisters living with the women are the “spontaneous things that happen that show we care and support them. It’s not having to wait for an appointment to talk to someone. It’s the security of the sisters always being there for them. There’s a reason behind their behaviors, and addressing their issues is what makes a difference.” While at Journey House, they receive substance and mental health counseling, vocational and educational training. After they leave, JTNL provides housing assistance.

The sisters also agree that Sher Bialczyk, their house manager, has been a “tremendous help” to their success. A former inmate with a history of substance abuse, Bialczyk understands the women, where there may be instances the sisters may not know what is going on.

That the women are self-motivated to recover is another key to their success. While still in prison, a phone interview is conducted with potential residents. They then write a follow up letter stating why they want to come to Journey House. Two weeks prior to their arrival, S. Martha writes to them. The women then sign a resident agreement prior to moving into the home. At the end of the thirty days, caseworkers interview the women to see how they are progressing, with the sisters also sitting in these meetings.

For the residents, Journey House is more like the family they wanted, rather than what they had. “It’s the freedom, the love. These women (the sisters) are heroes. They make you want to love them just by the things they do, the way they talk to you. They are always there. It’s a huge difference from prison,” one woman said, while another commented, “The sisters know all about us, but that doesn’t make a difference.”

The sisters find that wherever they go, there is a sincere interest in Journey House, including their fellow sisters who’ve all volunteered at the home. The generosity is shown not only monetarily, but also through in-kind donations and volunteerism, which is very meaningful for the women. It shows them somebody cares and respects them.

The success is so pervasive that many women come back to visit, with a couple even cooking dinner for current residents. They consider Journey House their home. As one commented, “this is the best place she’s lived.” Echoed another, “They (the sisters) are heaven sent. They do it not because they have to. They do it because they want to.”

In spite the remarkable success, there’ve been a handful of women who had to leave, either due to relapse or verbal abuse to others. However, they’ve never experienced an incident of physical violence at Journey House.

To aid in recovery, the sisters and women come together for circle time, where they listen and talk about issues, then come up with a solution. A recent session opened with S. Rose sharing that, while shopping, she discovered that all of her money had been taken out of her wallet. She was “hopping mad,” and further shared what the experience was like for her. Others then shared how the incident impacted them, and how they felt about it. Within five minutes of the group breaking up, a woman came to S. Rose and confessed to taking the money. The woman told S. Rose it “was the hardest thing that she ever had to do.”

For S. Rose, it’s moments like that which inspire her to continue what she’s doing. She’s been asked countless times when she’s going to retire from her numerous ministry activities. Her response, “This would be the last thing I give up. I love it here.” And the Journey House women love their sisters—their family. Together, they are building a better world. 

Reviewed by Helen H.
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