Sister Judy Birgen: parenting SP style
Bry’Chell Johnson has been living with Sister Judy Birgen since she was nine years old. Today, at 19, Bry’Chell describes herself as very focused and school oriented.
Bry’Chell has had many opportunities growing up. She has gone camping throughout the United States. She’s attended Catholic schools. She’s been in soccer, in band and actively involved in church. (She was, after all, being raised by a sister.) She spent her 7th grade year in the African country of Uganda while Sister Judy was a Fulbright lecturer. Today, Bry’Chell just finished her first year at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, which she attends on a scholarship.
Sister Judy says she got into a parenting role in an indirect way.
“I was involved a long time before I became a foster parent. I didn’t set out to be a foster parent. These are kids who just fell into my lap,” she explains.
Social worker invests her heart
In the 1980s, Sister Judy was working as a social worker in Chicago through Catholic Charities. A woman in the parish was dying of cancer and also raising five young grandchildren. She was referred to Sister Judy for help.
Sister Judy jumped in with her skills as a social worker and with her heart. She helped arrange for care for the woman and children. She remained a constant advocate in the children’s lives after the grandmother died.
Sister Judy brought the children all together from their different foster and group homes on the weekends so they could be a family. For stretches of time, she herself served as a foster mother to three of them as teens. She advocated for their educations. Into their adulthoods, she has remained a mentor, a member of the family.
The next generation
And that is how she became involved in the life of Bry’Chell and her siblings. Bry’Chell is the stepdaughter of one of Sister Judy’s foster sons. His marriage crumbled after the tragic death of a child in the family. As the mother was dealing with the emotional trauma, her six kids were sent to live with others.
Sister Judy was concerned that the oldest, 9-year-old Bry’Chell, was not going to a safe situation. Being a sociology professor at Chicago State University, Sister Judy was on summer break. She offered to take Bry’Chell for what was going to be two weeks.
“Two weeks turned into a month turned into 10 years,” Sister Judy laughs.
At first, living with Sister Judy was a bit of a culture shock for Bry’Chell.
“That was the roughest part, going to school with her. Because she is definitely a stickler when it comes to going to school, and my parents are not. I didn’t know what homework was. I didn’t know you had to do homework. And when I started living with her, that was what you did. You got home, and you did homework and you ate dinner and you went to bed. I was like, that’s weird; I don’t want to do that. I want to stay up and do things. I got into the habit of it, of course, with her. All my grades went up. And my test scores went up in math. And I was like, ‘OK, I guess I can do this school thing,’” Bry’Chell said.
Sister Judy also grew into her new role in young Bry’Chell’s daily life. She brought Bry’Chell with her when she taught an evening class. She oversaw her education. She taught her to cook and clean. She brought all the siblings together while their mother was working on weekends. Sister Judy takes the whole family on a week-long camping trip each summer.
Sister Judy has remained a strong supporter of Bry’Chell’s mother and the whole family.
“Some of it is systemic. Because the minimum wage is so low, mom’s working 60 hours a week just to keep a roof over the heads of the other kids. And it’s just, it’s hard. And she can’t always supervise, and teenagers sometimes need supervision.”
Sister Judy says she had a stable upbringing and lots of healthy opportunities in her own childhood. Her role in this family is a chance for her to pass those things on to others.
“I think all kids have a right to a decent place to live and to people who care about them. It’s not that I like kids. But they are good kids, and I do enjoy their company,” Sister Judy said.
Having the kids around brings something to her life.
“I’m a sociologist. The kids enflesh the reason I do what I do. As a university professor it connects my life to my students’ lives and makes me better at what I do. It also helps me to be a little more playful. There is a certain silliness that you have to have to parent. It has brought that out for me.”
Love, education and faith
How does Sister Judy see her role benefitting Bry’Chell and her family?
“I think they know I love them and care for them. I know it has helped their education. I am a Sister of Providence. Education is important to me. And I hope it has helped their faith lives.”
The family now lives just a few blocks from Sister Judy which makes maintaining relationships easier.
These days Bry’Chell is away at school most of the year. And Sister Judy has once again stepped up to help the family. Bry’Chell’s mom was concerned about her 13-year-old son, Andre. Sister Judy brings him to her house often to help provide the structure and supervision he needs to succeed in school.
When Bry’Chell thinks of Sister Judy, she thinks of camping. She also thinks of something more.
“I can’t think of a word for it, but she is somebody who sees your potential and puts you in everything just so you have more to put on your resume. She is sort of that person that pushes you along and says ‘Hey, go do this because you can.’ So even in the moments when I don’t want to do it, I go do it anyway, because I know she is right,” Bry’Chell said.
A teenager saying a parent figure is right. That speaks volumes.
(Originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of HOPE magazine.)