Transition home in El Paso helps women overcome crises, regain independence

At Villa Maria, women take turns cooking dinner for everyone, and each do their own dishes. (GSR photo / Soli Salgado)

Loretto Sr. Mary Margaret Murphy was walking from the dining hall back to her office in August when she ran into a smiling young woman wearing scrubs.

The young woman had come back to the women's transition home to say hi to Murphy and tell her that, shortly after leaving the shelter Villa Maria in El Paso, Texas, she started a program to become a medical assistant.

"That's wonderful!" Murphy repeated between their hugging and hand-holding.

Back in her office, Murphy — the case manager at Villa Maria — said those encounters are what keep her motivated in a job that sees so many tragic backstories and struggles.

Main entrance to Villa Maria (GSR photo / Soli Salgado)

"You don't really know if they're going to make it when they leave, and then they come back like that," she told Global Sisters Report. "She's so young, and she has her whole future ahead of her, and just to see what she's doing is amazing."

That young woman was 18 when she arrived at Villa Maria, a transition home for women without children who are either homeless, fleeing abusive relationships, or fresh out of prison or jail. Some are refugees from Africa or Central America or just over the border in Juárez, Mexico.

In this case, the young woman hoped to leave a violent home when her high school counselor called Murphy to ask if they could take her in.

When at capacity, 22 women fill the 22 private rooms, their stay usually lasting about a year or less. Women must be at least 18 years old and cannot be forced to live at Villa Maria; the move must be by choice.

They come with nothing, referred through halfway houses, rehab centers, parishes or other organizations. They leave with savings, a job, and a slew of resources Murphy and her team provide as they help pave their path to recovery.

Whether it's a root canal or glasses, primary medical care or help with job applications — "anything they need, we work to try to get it," Murphy said.

In 2007, Loretto Sr. Helen Santamaria founded Villa Maria in what used to be one of the poorest ZIP codes in the United States, in a building previously owned by the diocese.

Santamaria, working closely with Jesuit Fr. Rafael Garcia, realized there were a lot of women without children who didn't feel comfortable going to the homeless shelters intended for them.

Not having children meant the women were designated to homes where they would share rooms or floors with men. And because those shelters would accept everyone — "and thank God they do," Murphy said — that included people using drugs or alcohol. Sometimes the women would prefer to sleep outside or under a bridge to avoid the environment.

Murphy joined Santamaria's staff in 2006, and Villa Maria opened by 2007. (Santamaria stepped down as executive director in 2013 and is now on the board of directors.) The home celebrated its 10th anniversary Nov. 11.

Before being put on a waitlist — and there is almost always a wait — women first go through an interview with Murphy, even if the shelter does not have any openings at the time. In it, Murphy "gets a sense of what they've been through," including their history of abuse with drugs, alcohol or domestic violence, their criminal background, any mental health concerns, and the status of their children — if they have any — and if they plan on reuniting.

"We have women who have had serious addictions but who really want the path of recovery," Murphy said. "I tell them they have to be really open and honest with me because I won't know how we can help them unless I know what their needs are."

If women admit to having recently gotten drunk or used drugs, Murphy kindly tells them that to stay at Villa Maria, they need to already have started working toward recovery, such as concerted, recent efforts to sobering up or seeking professional help.

Women participate in regular arts and crafts activities while at Villa Maria, which are on display in one of the hallways. (GSR photo / Soli Salgado)

"We have too many women here who are walking that path, and we want you to walk that path, too," she tells them before providing information about in-patient facilities.

And those who appear to have major mental health issues must be willing to go through a psychiatric evaluation and be willing to take any medication the doctor recommends.

"I try to take the person who has the greatest need who also has the goals to heal from what those needs are," Murphy said.

'I can come out of this a stronger woman'

Sherree Scott was a self-described "military brat" growing up, traveling all over the world as the only sister to four brothers.

"I rebelled a lot at an early age," said Scott, now 64. "I had my first cigarette at 13, and from then on, it was a downhill rush to oblivion.

"I got in trouble with the law, a substance-abuse felony. I wasn't a dealer, but drugs were directly involved with why I got into trouble," she said. A couple of years ago, she did 10 months in an "alternative prison program," where they counsel prisoners throughout their time.

"At my age, that's not something I ever thought I'd be doing; I thought I'd be sitting at home with my grandkids rocking in a rocking chair."

After prison, she completed three months at a halfway house. But when her time there was done, she had nowhere to go and no friends or family nearby to help. Her probation officer recommended Villa Maria, where she has now been for almost a year.

"I had a warped idea that because it's run by nuns, it would basically be a convent," Scott said. "I thought, 'Where are they sending me? I'm so far from being a nun, it's like putting a demon in the middle of the system.' "

Sherree Scott, a resident at Villa Maria, in the main hallway. The home is brightly painted and has an indoor patio with plants, making the shelter a welcoming and homey atmosphere. (GSR photo / Soli Salgado)

Confined to a scooter, Scott deals with a heap of medical needs: diabetes, chronic pulmonary disease, a previous diagnosis of osteoporosis, and two bilateral knee replacements, one of which infected her left leg, which resulted in the cutting-off of 2 inches of bone, making it difficult to walk.

"For a long time, I felt sorry for myself and thought, 'What the heck, I'm just going to enjoy myself,' " Scott said. "I partied too much, just went crazy. After all that happened, I just gave up" and became addicted to "anything I could get my hands on."

When she arrived at Villa Maria, Scott said she felt near rock bottom and said prison was "actually a blessing. I'd still be an addict if I didn't do it. Sometimes you've got to get hit on the head before you realize you can't live like this. I needed a rude awakening."

The services at Villa Maria are what help women achieve their goals, which they set for themselves before moving in. Villa Maria hosts Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, tutoring for GED courses, psychiatric care, budget planning, a dentist who provides a range of services at no cost, and volunteers who drive women to off-campus appointments. Women take turns cooking and completing various chores throughout Villa Maria.

The chore schedule (GSR photo / Soli Salgado)

Now Scott spends her time back and forth at doctor appointments, and she has a laptop so she can get a second degree to add to the journalism degree she earned decades ago.

"I'm great in school. It's where I'm at my best," she said.

Villa Maria also has a club devoted to female empowerment, where professional women come in and talk about their expertise while touching on topics of motivation, self-esteem, nutrition and more. Staff members also help women with job searches and finding affordable housing.

Villa Maria is working with Scott to reapply for disability benefits so she can start saving and one day reunite with her kids and grandchildren in Connecticut.

"This place has given me a feeling that I can do better; as long as I maintain my sobriety and work hard, then I can come out of this a stronger woman, no longer an abuser and not a victim anymore. Someone my kids and grandkids can be proud of."

Two-way inspiration

Charlotte Krzemien's main goal while at Villa Maria was to get an education. The 54-year-old recently completed her associate degree from Southwest University, where she studied medical billing and coding.

About two years ago, Krzemien was living in San Diego with her boyfriend of a year and a half. One day, she stepped out to get food stamps, and when she came back, her boyfriend had changed all the locks and left all her belongings outside. She had nowhere to go and ended up in El Paso, where she lived in hotels, unsure what would happen once she ran out of money.

Her sister found Villa Maria through her parish priest at St. Mark Catholic Church. Krzemien had her interview with Murphy and moved in shortly after.

"I came here broken," she said. "I didn't know what I was going to do. I basically stayed in my room for a couple weeks — didn't want to come out, didn't want to do anything, didn't want to talk to anyone."

With Murphy's help, Krzemien has her mental health "back in check," she said, and started focusing on what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.

"Everybody here is very supportive," she said. "If I'm down, I can go right to Sister, and she always takes the time, even though she's a busy little bee.

"They truly care about us, whereas in other places, you're just another face. They really want you to succeed, and that makes it wonderful."

Krzemien said she takes things six months at a time. Now that she has a degree, she said she is working toward getting certified in medical billing and eventually finding a job.

"Once I'm OK money-wise, it'll be time to move on and let another girl come in that needs it."

Loretto Sr. Mary Margaret Murphy, in a patio located in the middle of the building (GSR photo / Soli Salgado)

There is no shortage of praise for Murphy and her staff among the women who live in Villa Maria. But the learning goes both ways: What the women have been through before coming to the home and how they're willing to start over, Murphy said, gives her courage.

She said the determination of the women has inspired her, and they teach her compassion, not to be judgmental, and self-talk, a form of positive reinforcement that involves talking to yourself.

"The faith these women have — I'm a Catholic sister, but I cannot tell you the tremendous faith they have and how deeply touched I've been because of where their faith takes them," she said.

"I have deep appreciation for what they've been through and what they've been able to do. I can't stand in judgment of them at all. Through my work here, the sky has been the limit as far as what I've learned working with women who are homeless. And I've learned that from them. They're beautiful."

[Soli Salgado is a staff writer for Global Sisters Report. Her email address is ssalgado@ncronline.org. Follow her on Twitter: @soli_salgado.]