Program helps women succeed - Catholic Courier

Program helps women succeed

EDITOR’S NOTE: The last names of some people interviewed for this story were not used in order to protect their privacy.

It’s not hard to tell where the Healthy Sisters Soup and Bean Works is based. The smell of spices wafts through the hallway of a humble-looking former Corn Hill hotel in Rochester.

Inside one of the basement rooms, women fill long plastic bags with beans and spices, rapidly making bag after bag of dried soup mixes.

For 10 years, Healthy Sisters has helped 240 women in recovery for addictions learn job skills they will need to enter or re-enter the work world. The Catholic Family Center program recently celebrated its anniversary by releasing a Tuscan bean soup created by Tony Gullace, chef of Rochester’s Max of Eastman Place. The restaurant also pledged to serve the soup at its restaurant for a month and donate the proceeds to Healthy Sisters.

The program started in 1996 as the Rochester Women’s Bean Project and was modeled after similar programs in Denver and San Diego. Local officials brought the idea to Rochester, where it made $3,000 in sales in its first year. It kept growing, changing its name in 2000, a move that allowed its products to be sold in stores outside of Rochester. Last year, Healthy Sisters had more than $100,000 in sales. Since it is a nonprofit, proceeds are used to buy supplies and pay stipends to workers. Grants and donations help cover the rest of the program’s costs. Items sold now include eight types of soup, salsas, dips, cornmeal mixes, sweet and spicy jelly beans, and gift baskets.

Some the women who participate in the project have been out of the work world for quite a while, so the minimum-wage Healthy Sisters’ job serves to remind them of good work habits and helps them create a healthy routine, said Carol Henning, project manager. For others, it’s the first paycheck they’ve ever earned, she said. One woman was so proud of her first paycheck, Henning recalled, that she wanted to keep it rather than cash it. Instead, a photocopy of the check was framed for her, she said.

Most women stay in the program between three and 18 months. Michelle Hecht of Rochester stayed longer because she began doing marketing work for the program, trying to get the soups into more stores.

“This job gives me an opportunity to sell a product I feel passionate about,” Hecht said. “I was a hope-to-die dope fiend. I was probably going to end up dead or in jail. They kind of redirected me.”

Hecht, 34, said she got hooked on prescription drugs after she blew out her knees doing karate. She started getting painkillers through the black market, but found that heroin was easier to obtain.

In and out of jail and drug court, Hecht agreed to try a residential-treatment program to avoid more jail time. She began living at Liberty Manor, which is part of Catholic Family Center’s Restart Program. There, officials helped her kick her addiction and got her into the Healthy Sisters program.

Addiction, she said, wiped away her belief that she was worthwhile. Working at Healthy Sisters reminded her that she could succeed.

“It helped me to become a productive member of society,” Hecht said.

That’s the intention of the program, said Carolyn Portanova, CFC’s president. It can be difficult for women to find jobs when they are fresh out of recovery, yet that is the time when a routine is needed most, she said.

“There are missing links in women’s recovery,” Portanova said. “Once they are clean and sober and learning new skills, then it’s time to go out there, but they don’t have the readiness; they don’t have the job-skill sets.”

Juanita M. said she had never held a job prior to her participation in the Healthy Sisters program.

“This is not just a workplace, it’s something to do and someplace to bring your problems,” Juanita said.

As she packaged soups using a modified funnel, Jeannine G. said Healthy Sisters’ workplace atmosphere is that of a big family, filled with friendly banter as the women work.

“It’s nice to get yourself back on the right track,” she said.

The program quickly grew after the soups were placed in the Nature’s Marketplace areas of Wegmans Food Markets throughout Rochester, Syracuse and Buffalo. The soups also can be found in many other local stores and gift shops, and the women also sell soups at the major area craft shows and festivals. Groups also can sell the soups as a fundraiser.

Henning credits Hecht with the growth. After she had been packaging soups for some time, Hecht volunteered to make calls to retailers to try to get the soups in additional places. Now, soups sell nearly as fast as the women can make them, especially during the holidays, they say.

The hope is that the program will continue to grow, Henning said.

“When I came here, there were five soups, no dips and no candy,” Henning said. “It’s been a lot of fun to watch it grow, and a lot of the growth is right from the ladies themselves. They suggest things.”

For details on Healthy Sisters, call 585/546-2784 or visit www.healthysisters.org, which includes a list of places where Healthy Sisters products are sold.

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