Sister Amy helps break the cycle of homelessness

3-photos_sister-amy-helps-break-the-cycle-of-homelessnessLeft, Sister Amy looks over instructor materials for her classes; middle, Sister Amy with Cherry Street Mission co-workers Shawn Kellerbauer, exchange manager, and Rebecca Bowling, director of volunteers; right, Sister Amy works with a student at Cherry Street Mission in Toledo.

One of the best ways to understand Sister Amy Junk’s impact on the homeless and poor women she serves at Cherry Street Mission Ministries in Toledo is to listen to her co-workers describe her. Organized. Compassionate. Comforting. Prayerful. They say these things and one begins to see how Sister Amy lives out her Precious Blood spirituality by ministering to those in need.

“She is really good at showing God’s love through her actions and through her words,” said Delray Busch, education and workplace development manager at Cherry Street Mission. “She really helps women understand. She’s great at meeting them where they are and not overwhelming them.”

With prayer and patience Sister Amy guides about a dozen women through academic courses offered at the mission. Some women are preparing for college, studying to take the General Equivalency Diploma test or tailoring work skills. The women have different needs depending on their goals, so individualized learning plans are developed for each of them.

“I talk to them about what their goal is,” said Sister Amy. “A lot of them want to get a job and some want to go back to college. After they take the (assessment) test and write an essay, I try to pull out whatever goes with their goal to get them started.”

On a typical day, Sister Amy gets one woman started on math problems, helps another with reading and helps yet a third work on her resume. Everyone participates in a small prayer/devotional to start the two-hour session.

Founded in 1947, Cherry Street Mission Ministries houses more than 230 people and serves more than 880 meals per day. In addition to basic services, the agency offers programs designed to break the cycle of homelessness. Outreach operations enable clients to develop work skills and network with potential employers.

There are challenges. Some of the clients have had limited schooling while others fight through a language barrier. Almost all the students suffer the effects of drug use, involvement in the criminal justice system or homelessness. Many are in some type of counseling or have long-neglected physical problems. These personal issues can hinder learning. In addressing each person’s unique needs, Sister Amy is as much a cheerleader for her students as she is a teacher, celebrating their incremental successes.

To keep the students motivated she encourages them to let go of their past, praises their accomplishments and strives to eliminate negativity. She will also use fun brain teasers to stimulate her students and keep their minds off their personal situation. Holding a devotional at the beginning of each session draws the students to each other and helps keep them focused.

“Motivation is a big factor,” Sister Amy explained. “[Students] who aren’t motivated usually end up dropping out.”

A former music therapist, teacher and parish musician, Sister Amy first became involved with tutoring and GED preparation after joining several other Precious Blood Sisters who went to live and minister in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. She began to see the need for adult education because the high schools were destroyed by the storm.

After returning to Ohio, she moved to Toledo and began volunteering with Women Blessing Women, an agency started by women religious in Toledo that helped poor women obtain an education and job skills. She eventually moved to Cherry Street, volunteering for a year before joining the staff. It’s a ministry she couldn’t have dreamed of as a young nun trained in music.

A native of Ft. Wayne, Ind., Sister Amy had two aunts who were Precious Blood Sisters and an uncle who was a Missionary of the Precious Blood. She remembers little of them because they were much older, though her aunt, Sister Luca Junk, was well-known for her more than 20 years of ministry in Arizona.

Sister Amy attended Precious Blood School in Ft. Wayne, and was taught by the Precious Blood Sisters who influenced her spirituality by their faithful living of the community’s charism. She sensed her own call to religious life as a child and entered Fatima Hall after graduating from eighth grade.

Sister Amy was trained as an elementary teacher and taught in Ohio, Missouri, Ft. Wayne and North Dakota. She also served as a parish musician and liturgist for many years in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan before moving into music therapy. She ministered in that field for about ten years, mostly at nursing homes in Michigan. As a music therapist, Sister Amy used music to address individual needs of her patients. That experience helps her in her current ministry as she advocates for her students and develops their individual plans.

“This seems to be where I belong,” she said. “I think that every ministry I’ve done has always been preparation for the next one.”

Outside of her work at Cherry Street, Sister Amy is active in vocations. She has served on the community’s Vocations Ministry Committee and works with the vocation directors in the Toledo diocese.

Working with vulnerable women has deepened her spirituality, Sister Amy said. It has taught her to listen more clearly to her students, and to God. She begins her day with 30-45 minutes in prayer for strength. She trusts that God will get her students where they need to be. She reaches out to the community for support and regularly visits Salem Heights. “It has helped me try to be intentionally positive,” she said. “It shows me some blessings that I take for granted.”

Story and photos by Dave Eck

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