Soon afterward, though, Sister Jeanette realized the women needed something more than just fellowship and a friendly cup of coffee. Noting that creative expression can nourish a soul just as food nourishes a body, the nun began a program to teach women jewelry-making skills.
As the program’s popularity grew, the women began selling their wares at nearby Findlay Market to help supplement their meager incomes.
Located at the corner of Liberty and Vine streets, Sarah Center still specializes in teaching, assisting and encouraging the underserved women of the area. The handmade jewelry is sold at various art shows and gift shops, as well as at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
"There are a lot of shelters around that meet the immediate needs of women but Sarah Center is here to feed women's souls,” says Director Paula Houston. “We feed their creativity and offer them emotional and moral support."
Now in her third year at the center, Houston’s work has allowed her to see all women as "being on the same journey but at many different places on that journey.
"You really find all kinds of women here although our mission is to serve low-income women, primarily,” she adds.
“What's neat about Sarah Center is diversity. You see the women working here and you can't really tell who's low-income and who's not, oftentimes because they're sitting and working side by side."
Among the craftswomen is Debbie Kelley, one of Sarah Center's most prolific jewelers and bestsellers. Kelley recalls her initial hesitation toward the center, believing it had little of substance to offer. After helping her cousin with a jewelry project, Kelley was invited to share her ideas. She did, beginning her long association with the center.
Asked what keeps her coming back, Kelley replies it’s not just the jewelry, although she is partial to the crystals and sterling silver.
"This is a home away from home. These are my sisters,” Kelley says. “We try to help each other. This is a place for women to come and vent and share experiences and knowledge."
The neighborhood can be tough on a body, Kelley adds, "and when emotional and mental stability are not around, (Sarah Center) treats you like a human being and not a number."
The center offers three levels of artisan classes for all skill levels. Beginners might work with glass beads and card making while the intermediate class moves on to quilting or working with different tools for jewelry making. Once women complete these classes, they can progress to advanced courses using different tools and methods like enamel work, glass fusion and business modeling.
Graduating from advanced classes, artists are given their tools and can look forward to promising prospects. Of the many women the center has graduated, 12 have gone on to operate their own businesses.
The very women that have used Sarah Center’s resources often return to teach most of the courses and, although the center can only pay a minimal amount to the instructors, there seems to be other motivations besides money. Participating once as student and now as teacher, the women accept the role of those who once helped them.
Not only does Sarah Center educate and empower, it benefits participants by providing them with much needed extra cash. For each item sold, the artist earns a percentage of the selling price (60 percent for jewelry and 90 percent for quilting); the remaining revenue goes toward support for Sarah Center’s operations.
Sarah Center receives a majority of its funding from the Catholic Church, along with some private donations. Houston suggests that while its affiliation with the church might be a deterrent for some people on the outside who want to help, she points out there is absolutely no proselytizing or preaching at the center.
"Attending spiritual events," as the Sarah Center Handbook states, "is optional but encouraged as this is a strong part of (Sarah Center) tradition."
To be sure, there is no attempt to convert the souls that enter here. Instead, they offer only a hand, a shoulder and a body that wants to help.
SARAH CENTER's annual spring boutique sale is April 22-25. For more information, visit Sarah Center at 1618 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, or call 513-651-1532. A Web site is being developed, and online sales begin in June.