A Conversation with Sister Ann

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Sr. Ann Kendrick poses with a mural inside the Hope CommUnity Center in Apopka, Florida which depicts Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., other Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur who arrived with Kendrick in the 1970s to serve the community, farm workers and others. (GSR Photo / Gail DeGeorge)

By Gail DeGeorge, Global Sisters Report

The Community Center of Hope in Apopka offers a range of programs serving the local community: English courses, citizenship programs, counseling, legal services, immigration assistance and groups for young people, women, families and unaccompanied minors. ‘Central America.

Yet this is not what founder Sr. Ann Kendrick considers to be the heart of the Hope CommUnity Center, which was born from Office for the Ministry of Farmers in the Diocese of Orlando and became its own non-profit organization three years ago.

The real mission of the Hope CommUnity Center is “advocacy – organizing in the community for social change,” said Kendrick, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur. “Hope engages in direct action campaigns and creates alternatives. Our main goal is social change, creating the beloved community with deep connections between people who are empowered to work for social justice by fighting oppression and creating alternatives.

Kendrick has been doing this work since arriving with three other sisters in 1971 in what was then a small farming community in central Florida. Bishop William Borders of the Diocese of Orlando appealed to Catholic sisters to come and minister to the mostly migrant workers and workers in the region.

Kendrick, who taught Spanish at high schools and colleges in the northeastern states and loved the Spanish language and culture, had never planned to go to Florida: “It was hot, flat and out of my area. comfort of the northeast.

Yet she was intrigued by the prospect of putting into practice what she and other sisters had studied through documents from Vatican Council II, liberation theology and Gustavo Gutierrez, Paulo freire, and others. She and other sisters supported the United Farm Workers of America and encourage students to boycott grapes and lettuce. Traveling to central Florida to minister to migrant workers would make “this involvement in social change more real,” she said.

“I decided I would come over for a year or two to help the team get started. Arrogance and pride are some of my character flaws, ”she laughed. “It played into my heroic self-importance: ‘I’m going to change the world.’ “

Fifty years later, Kendrick still lives in Apopka. Among her many projects over the years, she cites four major initiatives that have evolved to bring positive change to the region – Community health centers, Houses in partnership, Mutual Aid Fund, and statewide Florida Farmers Association– as well as over a dozen programs through the Hope CommUnity Center that serve the population of what is now the second largest city in Orange County, Florida, after Orlando.

Members of the Hope Community Center at an immigration rally and march in Washington, DC, about 10 years ago.  (Courtesy of Hope Community Center)

In addition, many participants in Hope CommUnity Center’s service learning programs, including the Volunteers of the Notre-Dame-AmeriCorps mission program, often do additional shifts, and even hold staff positions with other nonprofits and local schools.

Earlier this year, the Orlando Magic basketball team honored Kendrick as a “game changer for social justice” because of his longtime advocacy for Florida farm workers. Kendrick took the honor in stride.

“I have a big personality and a big mouth and am a media fanatic, but I never want that to take away the leadership of the community,” she said. “These are the people who inspire us and move us forward, who suffer and are resilient, who continue to believe that life is worth living and are noble and generous people who want to help.

RSG: What was central Florida like when you arrived in 1971, and how did you begin to minister in the local community?

Kendrick: It was a very segregated and racist reality. We knew we had to live in a place that identified us with the community we were called to serve. People of color did not feel comfortable in white neighborhoods. In fact, it was dangerous for them.

We had no money for a center. We had no money for any program. It was just us, a team of four, trying to figure out what the reality is, who the people are, what the issues are, what are the hopes and dreams, what the lay of the land is and what matters to people. . We said to the bishop, “We don’t want a job description. We need to be able to find our way with people.

So we moved to the southern black community of Apopka and lived there for 25 years, and we got to know people. This led to concrete projects: the development of a health center; a clinic that now has 75,000 patients and 12 or 14 different independent locations including dentistry, mental health, pediatrics, OB-GYN. It all started with conversations in the community.

Neither of you was a nurse. Can you tell us more about the beginnings of the health clinic?

We were the only white people who lived south of the tracks [in Apopka]. There was a guy, Henry Louis Kellom, who lived near us and who was curious about who these white ladies were. He was back from Vietnam, going to school on the GI Bill, and working nights in a juice factory. He was a leader in the community and he introduced us to people. They invited us to a meeting about the lack of health care for people of color and for the poor in general.

There was an opportunity to compete for federal money to open a health center for farm workers. The health ministry did not want to request it that year because it was going to be forced to have local people from the community to give their opinion on the value of their work. The conversation turned to whether we sisters could get the necessary community contribution and get the grant.

One of us stood up and said, “We are four white sisters who have just arrived in town. We can’t do this. We don’t know how to do this.

Our dear neighbor Henry stood up and said, “Four white sisters and one black brother.

With that, everyone in the room intervened and pledged to participate in the organizing group. It changed everything: “If you’re in it, we’re in it. We will do it together. “

We have the “nun’s gift”. We know people who have resources. We found someone who had written a grant, so we got some ideas from that. We put together a board of directors of prestigious and community people, and we got the money to hire a doctor, a nurse and a third person as a director. We asked the diocese to buy trailers – we had a double width which was the clinic and a single width which was the office – and the Presbyterian Church in Maitland paid for the land.

It used to be called the West Orange Farmworker Health Association, and it’s now called Community Health Centers. It changed its name because it was not aimed only at migrant workers. They now have around 500 employees.

Why are service learning programs so important to Hope Community Center?

Immersion in the community, family life, work and culture of immigrants and farmers creates human bonds that teach, inform and change lives. Our country is so divided by class and race that people have no idea of ​​the realities beyond their own limited experience.

Students come from colleges, universities and a few high schools across the country to stay with immigrant families and work in fields and horticultural operations, getting to know the realities of the people, the root causes of their migration. and how they live in the shadows due to their immigration status and lack of protection. Workers and their families face systemic racism and exploitation.

Agricultural work is hard and back-breaking work. Farm workers are essential workers but often do not receive the respect they deserve. In the afternoon, we unpack student experiences and teach while community members tell their stories. It is powerful. Lives and attitudes change. People from very different worlds come together and become a family. We learn by serving, and we understand our service better by engaging directly with the community. Powerful and sacred moments are part of the total experience. We keep in touch and students become advocates for change.

Service-learning students pick cabbages on a farm in Zellwood, Fla. In 2015 as part of the Hope CommUnity Center's program for students to gain a better understanding of the work of farm laborers and migrants.  (Courtesy of Hope Community Center)

You didn’t originally intend to stay in central Florida. Why did you stay

I fell in love with the community, the people and the deep meaning of work. We are not fulfilling someone else’s work vision. We were able to work with the community to develop the work.

My commitment was that every year I look at myself and what the year had been and what we were looking forward to and ask, “Do I still have the energy for this, do I still have the ideas and the desire to to be part of the fight?

It’s hard. I had the arrogance of youth, thinking that we are really going to clean up this mess, that in a few years we will have collective agreements for all farm workers and that the world will change and that racism will disappear far and wide. poverty is going to be a thing of the past. It was my white privilege, to imagine the power to be able to change all of these things with just your will and your passion.

But I stayed because I love people and I am touched by their generosity, their simplicity and their courage. I am evangelized by them every day. They taught me what resilience and faith really mean. I live in fear of having been fortunate enough to be able to do this job for almost 50 years. Every day is new, a new opportunity, a moment of learning, a feeling of love and kindness.


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