Every day an adventure for Sister Betty Smigla
Sister Betty Smigla (formerly Sister Ann Martin) ministered for 46 years in formal education, including six years teaching in the country of Peru and over thirty years as teacher and then administrator in Chicago schools. In 2009, she began volunteering as a “compañera” (companion) at Taller de Jose, a ministry of accompaniment for those struggling to navigate complex social systems in Little Village, Chicago. Sister Betty works with mostly Spanish-speaking clients seeking assistance with a variety of issues, from legal and financial help to domestic violence and immigration cases.
What is a typical day like for you as a compañera at Taller de Jose?
I greet people, listen to what their needs are, find them resources or take them to resources right on the spot. I try to listen in between what they’re saying. I do well with quiet people; I bring them out of their shell. After about five minutes, they trust you. It’s overwhelming that another human being from another county who is in need puts so much confidence in us. But that’s a blessing. I’m not a psychologist, I’m not a doctor, but I have a good gut. I build them up. They leave a little more energized, a little more peaceful, knowing at least someone was there to listen to them. For us, it’s important not to create dependency. We help them with what they need, bless them and let them go. It’s important to give them that respect – show that we believe they are able to handle themselves if they just get a little help. They know they are not alone.
Did you ever think you’d be in this line of work?
Oh no. I was so busy being a principal and eighth grade teacher. At that time I was finishing a term of being principal for 20 years in Humboldt Park [Chicago]. I decided, “I think I need a break from this.” I wanted to leave when I was at the top of my game and happy. I didn’t give it any thought. I went to talk to Father Perez, chaplain of Kolbe house, and said I’d be glad to help out if he needed me to do something. [Referring to Taller de Jose,] he said there was something new happening, and I’d be good at it. I had worked with orphans in Guatemala, prostitutes in New York: nobody scares me. I scare them more. They look at me and say, “How does she know Spanish?”
What is most compelling about the ministry to you?
To me every day is an adventure. We’re finding solutions with the people. They have a crisis and we can find them help or assistance, as much as we can. Getting records is always an adventure. Once it took me six trips to the offices [downtown] and four phone calls, but I don’t give up too easily. When you have experience teaching eighth grade, you don’t give up easily. I follow the clues of what they give me. Name, birthday, prison record – it’s about putting pieces together. I’m not good being locked up in an office and doing the same thing. So for me, the adventure is good. If we get the right resources, we can move them from a crisis center to normal family living. Little by little – poco a poco – we get things done.
What are some of your most meaningful cases?
I accompany one lady with a brain tumor. The tumor is attacking her auditory and visual nerves on the left side of her face. To communicate with the doctor, I write large in Spanish, and she can verbalize the answer. The beautiful part of her is, here she is with all this – a rare hereditary condition and three of her siblings with the same type of tumor – and I get the privilege of being with her. She volunteers at Salvation Army three times a week. Can you believe it?
For another case, I took one of our volunteers from Italy. “Oye [listen] Marco, come on – you’re gonna go with me.” Off we go to find this homeless guy. We took him to the hospital. I had to take off his shirt and his shoes. I almost threw up from the smell. We went to a clothes store. Marco offered to give him his socks. We went to the house where he’s staying and asked, “Can you give this to the guy with the walker?” Pretty soon he comes by [Taller de Jose] again and we take him to the doctor. We help organize his meds, throw away the moldy bread in his bag. If we’re not there, who would do that? Who would take the time to do that? You’re not gonna get any money from him. You’re not gonna get any donations. But I always say, “When you win the lottery, bring a donation. And I’ll know if you win the lottery because you’ll be on the news.”
Do you think you’ll ever really retire?
Retire? We don’t talk about retirement. Wouldn’t it be boring? Whatever comes along I’ll do, as long as I’m still able to move.
This is a perfect match. I don’t have an agenda. I speak and write Spanish, and that’s where the confidence comes.
You have to be goal-centered and goal-driven. They don’t need a crying companion. They need somebody who will walk with them toward solutions. That’s what they’re looking for. We have fun on the way too, you know. We talk about everything. I tell the guards [when we go through security], “Remember me when you’re leaving – I don’t look cute in stripes going the other way.” Whatever I can do to keep things fun, lighten it up.
The word is on the street now. They’re sending their friends if they have a problem or a situation. That’s a sign of real respect, of the confidence that they have in us. We take care of the need at the time, and we’re prepared if they come back and have the information for them. They respect that role of advocacy. People get it.
(Originally published in the Fall 2015 issue of HOPE magazine.)