Chillán, Chile — On the surface, Casa Ursulina can be described as a roomy two-story house founded by an Ursuline Sister of Mount St. Joseph, Kentucky, a space where struggling women from Chillán, Chile, gather for socials and crafting lessons, making products they can sell at local fairs for spending money.
But the real help the women get is deeper than their acquired skills and side income.
Local psychologists and social workers prescribe joining Casa Ursulina to their depressed patients, and women establish friendships and mutual listening they otherwise lack in their homes.
They develop "a sense of connection, having a group of people who just accept you like you are, no demands. ... A lot of them talk about how this was what got them out of depression," said Ursuline Sr. Mimi Ballard, who founded the center with seven Chilean women more than 20 years ago.
Since its founding, Casa Ursulina's enrollment has only increased every year. Today, it has roughly 200 participants — with renewed memberships every year prioritizing those with economic and psychological needs — and about 15 programs, including baking, embroidery, belly-dancing and visiting the sick. A sort of community center, Casa Ursulina offers volunteer-run classes to women, allowing them to connect with other women while providing an opportunity for community outreach, such as visiting senior citizens and the bedridden.
"I never actually counted on all the side stuff that was going to happen that actually is better than what we planned on," Ballard said, referencing the boosted self-esteem that came with the crafting. "It's made their world bigger."
Casa Ursulina's beginnings
Ballard began ministering to women in Chillán in the mid-1990s, around the time Chile was transitioning out of its 1973-90 military dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet. Many government and church organizations started supporting women's groups, said Ballard. An American, she had served as a missionary in Chile, left during the dictatorship and returned in 1993.
Most people in Chillán, which is home to approximately 160,000 people, work in construction or simply go to the town center to take on freelance day jobs. Fruit and vegetable exportation dominates the commercial scene, as do small restaurants and businesses.
"People get creative about ways to make a living," Ballard said.
Ballard helped women who were talented at crochet get in touch with artisanal fairs, where they successfully sold their crafts.
"We decided if it went well for us, it could go well for a lot of women," she said.
Eventually, she formed 15 different crochet groups, each with seven or eight women who alternated hosting at their homes. Everyone traveled with their yarn and crochet hooks in hand.
As the program expanded beyond crochet, the crafts became less portable, requiring sewing machines or glue guns. Ballard's congregation in Kentucky raised money to help them buy a house in 1997 that has since expanded, its spacious living rooms lined with crafting tools, providing ample room for members to gather and for Ballard to live.
One of the original participants was Patti Jamett, who said the house has become important to the women because "for many of them, it's the one place where they are heard."
"They have children and maybe a husband, but why does the husband want her? For lunch, for a clean house, a made bed, new clothes, but not to vent to," said Jamett, who returns to Casa Ursulina occasionally as a volunteer. "Here, she has people to laugh with, women who experience the same in their homes. ... You know it's important to women if some of them take two buses to get here" — a commute she said can take an hour.
Almost all the women who participate today have children at an early age, and many become grandmothers in their 30s. Often, they raise their children without the father, instead depending on the support of their families, living in multigenerational homes. Alcoholism used to plague the area, Ballard said, though now cheap drugs have taken off in popularity, becoming "the cancer of the town."
"It's the downfall of any kid that doesn't get a lot of support to get out of that cycle of poverty," she said.
"We decided right off that this was going to be an endeavor based on solidarity: women helping women," Ballard said. "The idea was that if you knew how to do something, you could teach it. And that's how the different classes and groups got started."
Each group has a core organizing team and 25-30 volunteers who teach or run programs. The center runs on the school calendar (March through December) so women can come while their children are in school.
Classes include weaving, ceramics, crochet, baking, yoga, spinning, felting, knitting, embroidery and, more recently, carpentry and basic plumbing so the women don't have to call help for minor household tasks.
"It was never my idea to teach ceramics, but somebody showed up that knew how to do it and wanted to help," Ballard said. "Go right ahead. That's the way it's happened all along.
"And that's the bottom line of this house: If you received it freely, you give it freely. Without it, it doesn't work."
Services and outreach expand
Jamett recalled the switch at Casa Ursulina from crafting to providing more services and community outreach: "Mimi noticed that the women were eager to learn and do more. And I'll never forget — I have this memory very clear — when we decided to transition to helping pregnant students."
The primary focus of Casa Ursulina's outreach in the beginning was on pregnant teenagers, who at the time were not allowed to stay in school. Because the teenagers were left with nothing to do, Ballard said, the center started classes that would help them get ready for the birth, eat healthily, and learn how to take care of a newborn. Once they had their child, they could still attend courses at Casa Ursulina and bring their babies, getting help and tips from the volunteers on caring for their kids while also taking sewing classes to make clothes and bedding for their children.
"Back then, the school system was not supporting them," Ballard said. "That's changed. ... Now, the schools do everything to keep the girls in school. If you're going to be a mother, you need your education."
She said the public health system has also improved, offering young mothers more services, including counseling and group exercise classes. With the women's needs shifting, Casa Ursulina now offers material help, such as clothing or furniture.
Now, the center's community outreach focuses more on senior citizens and people confined to a bed who require 24/7 care from family members, Ballard said, citing the lack of affordable nursing homes. Volunteers at Casa Ursulina visit the bedridden or sick individual for a couple hours at a time to free the caretaker.
For its free services, Casa Ursulina always prioritizes those with greatest economic need.
"You can't be wealthy and come here unless you come to offer your service to the program," Ballard said. "We have had people with no economic problem whatsoever who just wanted to teach what they knew, and they ended up being great participants in every way."
An exception is made for those sent to Casa Ursulina by a doctor, psychologist or social worker because of depression.
"Depression has no economic group, and it's a big deal here," she said. "I don't know if it actually is higher than other areas, but it just seems more common, or more open, that so many people suffer depression. A lot of the women here talk about how this was what got them out of it."
Ballard said the women often talked about how good it had been to have a group of friends outside their home.
"Then there are all the other things, like the first time somebody sells one of their products," she added. "It's a big deal that somebody likes what you do well enough to pay money for it. Or the fact that you actually are contributing to the economic needs of the family, and to feel really good about what you make."
Monthly prayers and informal group dinners, she said, encourage a strong bond among the women.
Jamett said at the 2017 celebration of Casa Ursulina's 20th anniversary, women danced freely in ways they didn't feel confident enough to do years ago. Some shared why they appreciate Casa Ursulina and how it's benefited them. Ballard recalled one young lady who kept referring to all the things that Ballard did for her.
"The entire time I'm sitting there, thinking, 'What did I do?' I couldn't think of anything specific that I had done for her. And then it occurred to me: I listened to her."
Today, Casa Ursulina is in the process of becoming a nonprofit organization, forming bylaws and a board of directors that the core team of women will vote on, ensuring the ministry continues long after Ballard, who recently turned 71, decides to stop.
"We felt that after 20 years, they were ready to take over that responsibility themselves," said Sr. Amelia Stenger, congregational leader for the Ursuline Sisters of Mount St. Joseph and a lifelong friend of Ballard. "The women have been there working with Mimi for a long time, and they believe in it and are committed to it. It's a wonderful way of helping the women become self-sufficient.
"Mimi has taught there in many different ways by the way she lives, the way that she helps them, so we hope that that will continue."