During the last quarter century, Sister Diane Gianadda has looked into the eyes of hundreds of exhausted mothers.
For the most part, they have been single moms. Poor. Lacking support.
Some are grandmothers. Others have cancer. All could use a break – and Gianadda and a host of helpers have obliged.
Gianadda, a Franciscan nun who grew up in Buffalo and has lived in Niagara Falls the last 17 years, recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Women’s Respite Program, which she founded and directs. The program gives women who feel the weight of the world a breather for a few days of pampering at the Stella Niagara Center of Renewal in Lewiston.
“It’s really a beautiful, quiet, peaceful place,” said Gianadda, a Sacred Heart High School grad and current board member who got a social work degree from the University of West Virginia in 1975, after teaching English for a few years at a Catholic high school in Charleston, W.Va.
“Trying to teach poetry to the football team was a challenge I didn’t want to continue,” she said with a smile.
Gianadda has worked in Western New York for Catholic Charities, as a mental health counselor and, in recent years, an administrator for the Sisters of St. Francis, based at Stella Niagara.
Q. How did the Women’s Respite Program start?
A. When I was working (as a therapist) with Catholic Charities, my work took me into the homes of some very stressed low-income women. I could see that a lot of needs were not being met. Therapy can only do so much and parenting education can only do so much. I was working with a mom on the East Side of Buffalo who was cooped up in her home all summer with four children. Dad was in jail for having abused a couple of the kids. She didn’t want the kids to go outside because the neighborhood was so dangerous. I was letting her know I wouldn’t see her for a week because I was going on a vacation. When she responded to me by saying, “I wish I could have a vacation,” I was struck with the lack of fairness and justice in this situation.
While I needed my vacation, she needed it 1,000 times more. There was no way for her to ever get out of that place and get some rest and relaxation. Because the headquarters of my congregation is up at Stella Niagara, I thought this place would be ideal to invite women. We want to share our place with other people …
The women come for four days in the summer. We provide them with a private room, all meals, an indoor pool, message therapists, Mary Kay makeovers, arts and crafts, discussion about what you do to help get yourself through hard times, learning simple relaxation techniques, exercise, yoga, journaling, anything that will enhance their ability to take better care of themselves, anything that will help them learn to relax.
We go on the Maid of the Mist in Niagara Falls. Jim Glynn, the owner of the Maid, has been giving us complimentary tickets for 25 years. Some of these women have never stepped foot on a boat, so that’s one of the highlights.
Many keep in touch after the programs, find simple ways to learn to relax and take better care of themselves, that it’s OK to step away from the stress of life and learn how to take care of themselves. All of the activities are optional. Sometimes moms come and they just want to sleep for three days.
Q. Talk about the women who come to respite.
A. It’s a very diverse group. All races, ethnic backgrounds. Some women who have attended have master’s degrees, some have ninth-grade educations. People fall into hard times sometimes as a result of divorce, sometimes because of a loss of job. We’ve had women who’ve come to the program after a child has been murdered or died.
Q. Do you have any other programs?
A. Ten, 12 years ago, one of the women said, “We need a program for grandmothers who are raising their grandchildren,” ... so now we have a weekend every year for grandmothers in the spring. We also started a program for women with cancer, usually in February or March. November is our spaghetti dinner fundraiser at St. Leo’s Church (in Amherst). In winter, we also have an alumnae weekend; some of them say, “This is my place to get away, to refresh, to renew.”
Q. What part of the program has received the greatest accolades?
A. It really runs the gamut, but two come to mind. The place is quiet, peaceful and nonjudgmental, and I think immediately communicates a sense of safety. When people feel safe, they can relax and be themselves. Another thing would be meeting other women, feeling “I’m not alone;” the sense of community, friendship building, belonging to a group.
They love going on the boat, they love the makeup, they love the crafts, they love swimming, but I think if I left all of those things out and they just sat there for three days, that would be OK.
To donate or for info: Visit womensrespite.wordpress.com or mail a check to the program at 130 Ferry Ave., Niagara Falls, NY 14301.
On the Web: Learn more about the program at blogs.buffalonews.com/refresh